November 28, 2007
The Reincarnationist: An interview with author M.J. Rose
While I was in Miami for the Miami Book Fair International, I had the opportunity to have dinner with author M.J. Rose. This was incredibly exciting for me because I had just finished her most recent book, The Reincarnationist, and I REALLY loved this book, so I asked her if she would mind being interviewed for this little website and she agreed! I was going to break this story into two pieces because it's long, what with all my editorializing and having to talk about my reading habits, but if you get exhausted you can come back tomorrow and finish it. Bring coffee. Or wine ...
First, a little background.
I got a copy of M.J.'s latest book almost three months ago and it kept sitting there on the top off the bookshelf in my bedroom, taunting me. I keep the books on my "soon-to-read" list right there by the door so that if I need one for the bus ride I can grab it and go. But for the past couple of months I've been so busy that reading has fallen way down on my list of things I have time for, and Lord have I missed books.
Reading is my very favorite past time and my oldest friend. I learned to read when I was very small, and I have always been a fast reader, someone who can get so involved in a story that hours pass (delicious when that happens) and real life seems full of stories just waiting to be told. We moved around a lot when I was little, sometimes two or three times a year, so I never had many real friends growing up. It's hard to make friends and just leave them again a few months later. So I had books as confidantes: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Betsy, Tacy and Tibb, and all of the Lloyd Alexander magical characters, and of course the Scholastic hits. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Go Ask Alice!! Sweet Valley High. Gone With The Wind. Anne of Green Gables.
I read everything I could get my hands on, and it drove my folks a little nutty the way I talked about Laura Ingalls like she was MY sister, or the way I knew all about the entire life of Anne Frank but couldn't seem to remember things such as "pick your shoes up off the floor." I took a book with my everywhere -- I would read in the car, at the dinnertable if no one was looking, at the laundromat. You could just escape into a good story, it made everything in the real world seem a little softer around the edges, as if your dusty little smalltown life could be magical too if you just believed in storytelling enough. I believed. I have always loved books, even the smell of them makes me happy.
Also, I am not a book snob, I've always been an equal opportunity reader. I did go through the highbrow "I read nothing but classics and cutting-edge literature" phase (coupled with my highly aromatic Patchouli phase, alas, gasp.) I even remember once -- before a date with an adjunct History professor who I was TOTALLY IN LOVE WITH OHMYGOD -- I actually hid my copy of Wifey behind a strategically placed Henry Miller. If that isn't pie-pan-shallow trying to be deep I don't know what is.
Anyway, aside from that ill-fated and smelly phase I've always enjoyed books just for their appeal at the moment, and I've never cared much if they fall into some category or not. I read children's books and history pieces and paperbacks (LOVE my Sidney Sheldons and Michael Chrichtons!) and I like cookbooks, Henry James and anything first-person, especially from the European front of WWII. I am a nerd. I also like chick lit and lit-lit and feng shui manuals and self-help guides and biographies.
I go through phases, if a particular author gets me going I'll read everything he or she has written, or if a subject sticks with me I go through the aisles of the library combing for more information (I am a magnificently dorky history nerd. If I ever went back to school, I'd do it just to learn more history.)
But sometimes life gets so freaking hectic and busy and all the sudden reading a whole book -- a hardcover, even! -- feels impossibly decadent. I would reach for M.J. Rose's thick hardback book and suddenly the litany started: I should be writing emails, sending off packages, cleaning the house, visiting grandma, finishing up that powerpoint for work, returning phone calls. On and on. The idea of grabbing a novel and spending an afternoon reading it in bed or on the sofa or sprawled on a chaise lounge in the back yard, or propped up against the pillows as the cats snuggle around your legs ... it all seems as realistic as marrying George Clooney. Like that's gonna happen.
The happiest thing about traveling for the book tour, however, was that during all that time spent waiting in airports and sitting on airplanes it was simply impossible to clean the house, work on presentations or go to the mailbox. You just sit.
My Review of the The Reincarnationist
I'll be brief here:
I LOVED THIS BOOK.
It's fun! It moves quickly, it's a top-notch page-turning thriller and best of all I just escaped right into it. This book was exactly what I needed at the time. I had been stressed out, exhausted and scared of being able to make it through what would become the busiest time of my entire life. So I carried M.J. Rose with me those first few weeks, grabbing a chapter here, a chapter there, and finally finishing in Peoria, on an airplane, where I turned to the person next to me, shut the book with a sense of authority, looked her right in the eye and announced, "YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK."
If you like romancy-adventure-escapist-mystical-adventure-thriller-historical books, this one is for you. Lots of folks have compared it to the DaVinci Code and it is kind of like that book in the sense that it moves quickly, takes place both in modern times and in the past, and sort-of-kind-of involves theology. But this book also is about reincarnation and at its center is a believable character who makes the topic seem more accessible. And as far as books go it gets one of my highest compliments: it's a can't-put-it-down book! It's just fun. You're not plowing through it, wondering when the chapter ends if you can make it through another. You finish a chapter and wonder if you have enough time before the plane boards to read another chapter...
Also, it immediately made me want to phone Astrologer Phyllis and find out if I had any past lives. Not that I am crazy, much.
From L-R: Kim Weiss, boobs, amazing author M.J. Rose.
M.J. Rose and my publicist Kim are friends and so I'd like to thank them both for allowing me to ramble on and on at the restaurant over The Reincarnationist. And most of exciting of all... I also learned that this book is the beginning of a whole series of books on this subject! I tried very hard to get M.J. soused so I could learn all the secrets but that woman can hold her alcohol.
And now that I have written a whole book and I know exactly how hard it is to come up with a storyline that doesn't sag I was that much more excited to be able to pick her brain and see how a best-selling author many times over dreams up her stories, fills them in, and how she decides on just the right ending.
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Me: When I read the book, I felt like so much of it was part of Rome, the history and city. What came first, an interest in ancient Rome and ancient history or an interest in Reincarnation?
M.J. Rose: I'm not interested in Roman history at all. [Ed. Note: I gasped aloud. In the restaurant. Because she had written the Rome scenes so well!--laurie]
I mean, it's not that I'm not interested in Rome, I just don't have a particular thing for it, you know? I've always been fascinated with the idea of reincarnation, though. When I came up with the idea for the story and started writing the book, I just knew it had to take place in Rome.
Me: How did you know?
M.J. Rose: I don't know.There's something magically weird about writing fiction. I'll have an idea, and I usually start with a "What if...?" For example, what if a guy, a normal rational guy who didn't believe in reincarnation started having flashbacks that only could be reincarnation memories?
So then I spent about three months making this scrapbook... for this person.
Me: For the main character of the book, Josh?
M.J. Rose: Yes. And I created this scrapbook for him. What is he like? What would he wear? where does he go? And I included theater tickets and birthday cards and all sorts of things. What happened to him when he was two years old? And who was his father? And what was his mother like? And I created all this to make him come to life. And as it turns out, I finally realized it was... well, it was three months or more of procrastination. [Ed. note: we started laughing, me maybe louder than is required, because DO I KNOW ABOUT PROCRASTINATION. Yet my procrastination efforts were never that productive. I made note of her methods for future procrastination needs.]
Me: Wow, you really did some character development...
M.J. Rose: Well, what happens during that time is that the person comes to life and their story starts building unconsciously in my head. So by the time I'm ready -- however long that is -- I just know the story.
I go swimming in the mornings and while I swim, I think about the character. And for me, there's just something about water... for coming up for ideas. [Ed. note: I am the same way, except for me it's the shower. I get all my best ideas in the shower. Sometimes when I'm in desperate need of a good idea, I spend half the day showering...]
M.J. Rose:And while I'm swimming I kind of feel like I'm in an altered state -- not a weird altered state -- just thinking, and so to answer your question, How did I know it was Rome? I don't have the memory of exactly how I knew it, or when exactly I decided it ... it just evolves. The whole story evolves each day, and it evolved that he was a Roman priest and she was a Vestal Virgin. And so I had to do Rome.
Me: One of the reasons I'm so excited about The Reincarnationist is that it's so well done, it's a fun and escapist adventure book but at the same time it's got all this historical plot going on, and it doesn't get messy. And now that I have written a whole book, I finally understand how incredibly hard it is to make a story come together. To write the story accurately did you have to do a lot of research?
M.J. Rose: Yes, definitely. I had over 1500 pages of research. Luckily I had been to Rome three or four times, so it wasn't as if I were writing a bout a place I had never seen, ever, that would have been far more difficult. Usually a book takes a couple of weeks of research, but this book required so much -- I had never written anything that required that amount of research before. It took almost two years to write and research it.
Me: One of the things I thought was so great about Josh is that here's this character having these experiences of reincarnation memories, and yet he doesn't even believe in reincarnation! Was that part of the plan, to ease the reader into the story?
M.J. Rose: This is a series, and I really wanted to do the books right, so I figured I'd start with someone who didn't believe in reincarnation. See it through his eyes. Initially, I started with another idea for this book, involving a completely different character but it just wasn't working, so Josh is this other character, just reinvented.
Me: So is there a secret past-life regression society like the one that exists in the book?
M.J. Rose: No, nothing like that, nothing secret and so on, but for thirty years there was a man named Ian Stevenson who devoted his life to studying past-life regression in children and it was all very above-board. He died this past summer and another man named Jim Tucker has taken over the place.
Me: Did you ever have a past-life memory? Or an experience that made you so interested in the subject of reincarnation.
M.J. Rose: When I was a kid we were having dinner and my great grandfather who had come over from Russia was there, we were all around the table. I must have been around three years old at the time and while we were at dinner and I said, "Remember that time we broke all the windows..." and everyone became very quiet. And I would apparently tell him things, and before long the family became convinced I was reincarnated. And of course, being Jewish this was a problem for so many of my family. But my mother, she was a very interesting woman, she began to do research and found there was a long history of reincarnation stories in Jewish mystical writing. She sort of made it a family joke, we'd be talking about something that happened in the past and she would laugh and say, "Oh you were probably there..."
Me: When did you first start thinking about writing a story of reincarnation?
M.J. Rose: I was writing a screenplay, this was years ago, and it involved reincarnation. So I went to a past-life regression specialist.
Me: Ooooh! Really?
M.J. Rose: Yes, but I was never anyone famous. (laughs)
Me: Without giving away the ending... did you know how the book was going to end before you got to the ending?
M.J. Rose:I had written an ending -- a different ending -- [Ed. note-- HAH HAH! Suckers! She told me the alternate ending! I feel very in the know. Alas, I can tell no one.] and I gave the book to a friend of mine to read, and she said to me, "M.J., I think you have an ending here but you don't want to see it..." and she was right. So I did change the ending to what it is now, and it was the right ending all along.
Me: So how many books are in the series? And will we see some of the same characters again? Are you already working on the second book?
M.J. Rose: I'm almost finished with the second book, it takes place in Vienna.
Right now I know that there are three books at least, but there could be twelve in the series. As far as the characters go, I've done something a little different .... this series focuses on the Memory Tools, and rather than follow one character or a set of characters around, each book focuses on a new memory tool that gets discovered. There are new characters who have new adventures, each one connected to a different tool that helps in remembering past lives.
Me: And the next book is set in Vienna? Will Gabriella be there? Malachai?
M.J. Rose: Some of the same characters may weave into the storyline (laughs) ... are you trying to get the ending out of me?
Me: Yes. Definitely.
M.J. Rose: Well, turn the recorder off...
- - - - -
After that I ordered her another Mojito, but she really can hold her liquor, unlike some people who shall not be named but can be heard on the tape saying things such as, "I love coconut cake! I had more questions but hi, waitress, can I have another beer, and don't ya'll love coconut cake? Is this the best cake blah blah blah..."
You can catch up with M.J. Rose on her website, and if you're interested in the subject matter of past-life experiences you can join in on the discussion on a blog she's created just for the topic. You can find The Reincarnationist at Amazon.com and on shelves at most bookstores.
Thank you, M.J. You were so gracious and I appreciate your time and I cannot wait for the next book!
Posted by laurie at November 28, 2007 11:22 AM