Cathleen's Interview with Richard Bach
Richard Bach’s “Curious Lives”
“How would it feel to live in a world where we choose our highest right and not our darkest wrong, where we lift each other instead of always and ever putting each other down? How could such a civilization begin, and where would it go? So were born The Ferret Chronicles, the story of a doomed civilization that returned to life upon the single act of one individual.”
Richard Bach, “Curious Lives: Adventures from the Ferret Chronicles.”
Richard Bach’s books call from across the bookstore. I respond without hesitation, learning to trust that part of me that knows where the treasure is buried. “Curious Lives,” Bach’s collection of short stories, rests against one of his first books, that old friend and phenomenal bestseller, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” I reach for the new book and study its cover, an endearing ferret constellation set against a purple background. “Curious Lives. Adventures from the Ferret Chronicles.” Yes, I sense treasure.
“It’s in this book, what you are looking for today,” an inner voice says. It’s the kid. My inner kid, and she’s usually right. Another part of me tries to argue. “Ferret stories? Shouldn’t you be reading something a little loftier, something a little more spiritual?” I look around at other choices lining the shelves of Atlanta’s Phoenix and Dragon Bookstore.
“No! I’m not leaving without the ferret,” the kid insists, looking back at the drawing on the cover. She digs in her heels -- and wins. Actually, many engaging ferrets leave the bookstore that day, a cast of adventurous, brave and insightful beings who come straight from the heart and soul of a warm and brilliant man. Brimming with true spiritual treasure, “Curious Lives” is perhaps Bach’s finest achievement. He adores the characters, he says, and has ideas for another 40 ferret tales. Already a bestseller in Italy and Korea, his newest book has been slower to catch on in the United States. But he remains hopeful, seeing these stories of profound decency, mixed with great fun and discovery, as the perfect material for a family film.
These bright beings, with their mannerisms and journeys so cleverly depicted, do exactly what ferrets are good at. They get into places that are supposedly impassible and off-limits. In other words they get past our defense mechanisms, right into our hungry hearts and battered psyches. They are a highly evolved race, these ferrets. Theirs is a civilization without malice, greed or violence. With so much energy and imagination freed up for other things, they live in a world with few permanent limitations. Opportunities for adventure are everywhere: under the sea, in a museum, on planes and boats caught in stormy weather – even on a ranch where young ferrets, called kits, learn the ropes and study the stars. A former Air Force pilot and barnstormer who flies his own planes as often as possible, Bach continues to draw much from his own life in these tales. As a boy, he spent two years living on a ranch in Arizona and maintains enormous respect for the animal kingdom.
Bach keeps writing books that show us how beautiful life could be if we only remembered the truth about ourselves. Somehow, he makes it easier to remember and to laugh at our own digressions.
“Ah mortals. They love to forget,” says an inner critic, portrayed as a dragon, in the story of two writer ferrets. The dragon has much more to say, of course, being a harsh critic and all. But what one ferret learns about the true nature of this entity will be deeply moving to anyone who creates with words. The dragon is given a name: Cinnamon. The writer, Budgeron Ferret, does get scorched, but he’s never complete toast.
As a writer who could relate to Budgeron, I got up the nerve to contact one of Bach's publishing representatives. I asked for a telephone interview and it was granted. Bach seemed happy to explain why ferrets, and not human beings, were suited for these stories, and what he thinks about the future of our own human race. When I asked him if has ever personally known a an inner dragon such as Cinnamon, this very private writer answered honestly. He spoke of this "dragon" with a smile in his voice.
Bach: I know Cinnamon very intimately. For the longest time I would say that I had never experienced writer’s block. But when I was working on the story of the writer ferrets, it happened. And I thought, my God. I had forgotten how to write. The dragon says, ‘Just be quiet and don’t eat much and we’ll let you stay on the planet.’ It wants us to believe, ‘Who cares? So what? Nobody will care.’ But the truth is, millions of people will care. When one individual writer sings her song of beauty, she changes the lives of a million others. So there, dragon! There’s your ‘So what!’ I put everything I know about writing in that story. It’s all there.
Hulbert: Why did you use ferrets, and not people, in these stories?
Bach: That’s a very good question. If you’re writing about human beings, a little wall goes up. In stories about people you are going to be on the lookout for deception. Often, what they seem to be is not actually what they are. But whenever you look into the eyes of an animal, whether it is a dog or a cat or a tiger, they communicate to you, “Here’s who I am. They are very straight about. They might be communicating, “I will bite you if you come closer and I’m not in the right mood, but that’s real and you have to respect that. There are very few animals that try to deceive us. That allows me as a writer, as well as the reader, to get closer quicker
Hulbert: What do you think about the generation that first embraced Jonathan Livingston Seagull? Did we get sidetracked since the days that book first came out?
Bach: We have the power to destroy ourselves as well as the environment. As a species we love what I’d call brinks-person-ship, going right to the edge of disaster and somehow managing to pull back and recover. But my bet is still on the creative and playful and positive in the species. I think we will manage to survive and gradually turn things around. We’re like a giant tanker at sea that takes forever to turn. We’re a young species. We’re evolving. In the last half-century we’ve made enormous strides toward understanding. Until recently, it would be a ticket to the lockup and padded room if you had dreams of a world in which we don’t enjoy killing each other. I’ve decided in my own personal life that I withdraw my consent form the idea of evil, that vicious, mad current. Overall, I have an extremely positive sense that a consciousness has been born in these last decades in which it is all right to say that I want to have an individual connection with that “Is” that is out there, that source of light and love, a personal direct touch with that wonder. For someone to say this in 1930 would have been unthinkable. Now we have whole sections of bookstores devoted to this family learning. I am delighted to be a part of that. I have a very warm sense about those who found Jonathan and believed in him when the story came out, who believed in that strange book.
Hulbert: It was viewed as strange?
Bach: It was rejected 18 times by publishing houses. I began writing in 1959 and it wasn’t published until 1970. It came in this strange psychic way: Wham. I was sitting there and here was suddenly this amazing projection on the wall of my office. It was like a Technicolor movie. I wrote it down with green ballpoint pen on the back of some old stationary. And then it stopped before there was an ending. Somebody just pulled the plug, and I thought, “Now that really is weird, but thank you very, very much because I love this little seagull.” I thought I could come up with an ending, but I couldn’t. I had no idea what I was going to do. So I put the unfinished manuscript away. Eight years later, in Iowa now -- no longer California – it came back like it was an hour ago that I got the first part. I typed as fast as I could. I don’t know why there had to be that wait. But I knew that any story that began like that and finished that way had to be guided and directed. It was celestial timing. At first, the publishing houses rejected it – unanimously. They believed in me and they believed in my future as a promising writer. They didn’t believe in a talking seagull. Not a talking seagull!
Hulbert: And then it took off.
Bach: Yes. It has sold about 30 million copies in 47 languages. Jonathan’s middle name is actually Cinderella.
Hulbert: Are you hoping that “Curious Lives” will have the same Cinderella story as Jonathan Livingston Seagull?
Bach: I would love to see that happen. I don’t understand why it hasn’t happened. But I am a servant. My job is to write the stories and love these characters. Beyond that, I’m going to be led. But my hope is that someone will pick up this book and say, “This could be a wildly successful film. We’re seeing family films become major box office hits. That’s very encouraging. The whole idea for these stories came to me like a great burst of light. These are creatures who won’t hesitate to risk their lives for an ideal. But it is not cloaked in “us vs. them.” They love challenges. They’re interested in celebrities and the choices that other people make. It hit me. What if there was a culture so much like us: curious, intelligent, graceful, courageous, thoughtful, funny. But they didn’t live with the concept of evil? I’m just so enchanted with the little guys and their great adventures. When Shamrock realizes, for instance, that her ancestors came from the stars, I still can’t read that part out loud without being moved to tears. .
Hulbert: That scene affected me exactly the same why. It was incredibly moving. Is it because that’s our story, too?
Bach: Yes. I believe it’s our story, too. We have deep, intimate connections with our origins and our true family. Those who have shared our values and ideas since way back in time.
Interviewer: So we can learn, as the characters did, where to put our focus and how to choose our destiny?
Bach: Definitely. And we don’t have to wait for everyone to change. We can make that choice as individuals. September 11 was the turning point for me. I saw the images of that first building being hit and I said to myself, “I know we will be shown that picture 30,000 more times. It was shown again and again. I decided not to allow my own personal consciousness to experience that. I shut down the television and stopped reading the paper, and I noticed that the birds are still singing and the little squirrels and animals were still moving around. It was a huge epiphany for me that there is an enormous industry that feeds on our capacity for instant global communication. If there is any disharmony in some other part of the world, we know about it instantly. We are free to take it in to our consciousness. We can carry its weight and feel useless and hopeless. But it’s important to recognize that we are the sentinels of our own consciousness. I have other things to do with my consciousness. I have light to find and stories to tell.
This interview originally appeared in Spirit Magazine in 2005
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