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A Conversation with the Author
Questions and Topics for Discussion
A Conversation with the Author
One gets the impression in reading your novels, especially those
dealing with spiritual matters, that you are probably a deeply spiritual
person yourself. Is that an accurate description, and if so, are these
novels an expression of your beliefs and in some regard autobiographical?
I guess it’s true that I’m a spiritual person, though the word spiritual
always calls to mind somebody who is not part of the average, ordinary,
everyday world, and that is not the case with me. From childhood I have been
interested in what I think of as “the big questions”: Why are we here? Why
do we suffer and die? Why does suffering seem to be spread around unevenly?
Why does evil exist? Why does beauty exist? Etc., etc. I was brought up in a
very devout Catholic family, but I have traveled away from that—while still
holding on to a lot of what I got from it. I practice meditation regularly,
and have done so for thirty years. I do yoga, though not much better than
Otto does. I have read widely across the religious spectrum, as you can see
from the list of books in the back of Breakfast with Buddha. I have gone on
retreats—Catholic, Christian, nondenominational, Zen, Tibetan Buddhist,
Quaker/solitary—but the ideas in the books I write aren’t always my ideas or
beliefs. Sometimes they are, but often they are just questions that I want
to explore via the characters.
A lot of novels that are spiritual in tone and content tend to be either
overtly religious or patently sentimental, but you clearly aim at avoiding
either path. Why is that?
Well, it is very dangerous territory for a novelist. I mean, look at all the
killing that has been done in the name of religion, all the family fights,
divorces, arguments! I think the best way to approach it is with a sense of
humor and without trying to convince anyone of anything. I don’t want to be
a preacher, and I don’t want my books to seem preachy. I want to entertain,
maybe to make people think about things, but I’m not in the enlightenment
business. You can spoil a novel very quickly if the reader thinks you have a
particular agenda and have built the story around it. I have my ideas and
beliefs, but I try to be open to those of others. And I try to find common
ground among all the belief systems.
In explaining your belief system, you once made the following statement:
“In a mysterious fashion not completely understandable to us, everything
moves the individual toward humility.” Please elaborate.
If you are young, beautiful, strong, and talented and live long enough, all
of that will be taken away from you. If you are tremendously rich, you can’t
carry your wealth across the threshold of death. Those are facts, not tenets
of any religion. For all but the most conceited or desperately insecure, it
seems that you get wiser as you age, and that wisdom and humility go hand in
hand. I know it isn’t that simple, and I know some older people are far from
humble. But it seems to me that life is a kind of boot camp, designed to
break you down and build you up in a different way—if you let it. So you
lose your ability to sprint a hundred yards, but maybe you gain something
more important in the process.
Humor, or at least a humorous approach to life, plays a big part in your
novels. Do you include humor in an effort to lighten the approach to serious
subjects, or do you actually view the world with the same humor that infuses
Both. Certainly, as I mentioned above, I put humor into these novels
intentionally. In my earlier books, which were not so overtly spiritual,
there wasn’t nearly as much humor. I like humor in real life, too, though I
can’t honestly say I always see the funny side of world events. Some things
are sad, or awful, or painful, but in most lives there are these windows of
time in which you can laugh, and it seems like a good idea to take advantage
of those opportunities when they come along.
It is apparent in this novel, as in your previous one, Golfing with God,
and your newest, American Savior, that you feel that organized religion in
America, if it has not become corrupt, has at least lost its way. Why do you
feel this way?
I want to qualify that. For a lot of people, millions of people, organized
religion is a wonderful thing and an important part of their lives. I
understand that and respect it, in part because I grew up among people who
felt that religion gave their life a good structure. But I also know a large
number of people— good, caring, sensitive, compassionate people—for whom
organized religion just does not work. The ideas are stale, the language is
stale, the rituals do nothing for them and do not seem connected to their
everyday lives. What really bothers me, and what I went after in American
Savior, is when religion, instead of being something that a person uses to
become more loving and considerate, turns into something people use to
justify their own hatred or close-mindedness. That tendency has been part of
human psychology for thousands of years, but the form it takes here, now, is
abhorrent to me.
In this novel, your main characters, Otto Ringling and Volya Rinpoche,
both men with strong personalities and distinctly different temperaments,
embark on a road trip to Middle America, each undertaking his own journey of
discovery. Which did you come up with first, the idea of writing a novel
about the clash of beliefs or of writing a story that played out over a road
The road trip. I had always wanted to see North Dakota, always pictured it
as this mostly empty, beautiful, stark, striking place that was in some odd
way spiritual. I like the idea of adventures, or road trips, voyages,
expeditions. I am not capable of climbing Everest, so this seemed like
something I could enjoy doing, and that would be a nice canvas on which to
paint a story with some ideas in it. I made the first half of the trip
alone, then went home, waited for school to get out, and made the second
leg—Chicago to North Dakota—with my wife and daughters. I think we were all
surprised at how much we liked North Dakota.
One gets the impression at the end of the novel that Otto Ringling has
been deeply affected by the things he has learned during his journey back
home. Please project a year or so ahead in his life and tell us where he is
and just how he has changed.
I might write that story in a sequel some day, who knows? I guess his life
would still have its same exterior shape. He is a family man, loves his wife
and kids, and likes his job. He is not about to throw all that away and go
live on the old farm. I picture him as having a meditation practice, as
paying attention to things he used to ignore. I think he’d make two or three
trips a year out to spend time with Rinpoche and get his spiritual
counseling. He might eat just a bit less, or a bit more thoughtfully. He
might be a notch less cynical. He’ll be a good uncle to Cecelia and
How do your characters make themselves known to you? Where do you find
I write by the seat of my pants, almost always without an outline. I just
start, and that seems like opening the floodgates, or drilling a well. All
kinds of stuff comes out, and usually very quickly. (I wrote most of
Breakfast with Buddha while I was actually making the road trip.) After a
few decades of doing this I have the confidence that I can sort out most of
the bad stuff and refine most of the good, so I just let things flow at
first and then rework it. I think I’ve written the last few books in a month
or six weeks, then spent a year revising.
What’s next for you?
In this vein, I honestly don’t know. A spiritual memoir, maybe, if I can
find a way to make that funny or somehow different. I have a book coming out
on golfing and eating in Italy. That was fun to research. I have a thriller
coming out at some point next year. Right now I am going to take a little
break— it’s been a pretty intense pace the past few years—play some golf,
spend time with my daughters, maybe meditate a little more, maybe take the
time to write a novel longhand, which is the preferred method for me. No
retirement in sight, in other words, and I enjoy all of this.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. How do the first scenes of Otto with his family set the stage for
what happens in the rest of the novel?
2. In what ways does Otto change over the course of the story? What key
moments during the trip play a part in his evolution?
3. How would you describe Cecelia? Is she, as Otto says, “as flaky as a
good spanakopita crust”? Is there some substance to her?
4. Do you believe Cecelia changes over the course of the story, or do
you think it’s only Otto’s opinion of her that changes? Share specific
scenes that support your view.
5. Which events or remarks in the novel convince you that Rinpoche is a
legitimate spiritual teacher? Were there situations where you doubted
6. Humor is often employed a way of making us relate to a particular
situation. How does the author use humor in this way? Are there
particular passages that were especially funny to you? If so, why?
7. The book is partly about “meaning of life” issues, but it also has a
lot to say about contemporary American society. What does Otto see and
hear that makes him encouraged or discouraged about the state of
8. Discuss the role landscape plays in the story.
9. Jeannie, Anthony, and Natasha are minor characters in the novel, but
how do they serve to round out Otto’s character? How do they influence
your feelings about Cecelia and Rinpoche?
10. Amish country, the Hershey’s factory, a bowling alley, a baseball
game, taking an architectural tour of Chicago, playing miniature golf,
swimming in a Minnesota lake, why do you suppose the author chose these
kinds of activities? Discuss the purpose each activity serves in the
story. What would the book have been like had these activities not been
11. When Otto comes across the metaphor of the piano-playing boy in
Rinpoche’s book, he says, “If I had been editing the book, I would have
written in the manuscript margins, ‘Work this,’ meaning that the author
should take the general idea and sharpen it, make it clearer to the
reader” (page 174). Yet Otto can’t get the the plight of the
piano-playing man out of his mind. Why do suppose that is? What aspect
of the metaphor is unsettling to Otto? Do you find it unsettling? If so,
12. How would you characterize what Otto experiences after sitting with
Rinpoche for two hours in silence (page 237)? Have you ever experienced
the pleasure of a quiet mind? Was it similar or dissimilar to Otto’s
13. Do you believe Rinpoche is changed by the end of the trip with Otto?
If so, to what degree is Otto responsible for that change?
14. Do you believe the ending of the novel was the best ending for this
story? If the story were to continue, where should it go from here?