Interview with Katherine Neville about The Magic Circle
What is The Magic Circle about?
The Magic Circle is the story of transformation. It is the story of an aeon–a 2,000-year cycle–that began at the rise of the Roman Empire and the birth of Christianity and that is approaching its completion right now. The ancients of nearly every culture regarded the transition from one aeon to another as a form of initiation for the planet and everyone on it. At such turning points, the world changes quickly, time seems to speed up. Those who are rigid and wish to turn the clock backwards to an idyllic “golden age” of the imagination often do not survive the transition, but are crushed under the wheel. The Magic Circle is about the flexibility required for survival in times of volatile change.
The book begins during the last week in the life of Jesus, and it shifts quickly to 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down. As the modern heroine, Ariel Behn, pursues the truth behind her grandmother’s ancient manuscripts, we move back and forth with her through the periods of history that marked such major turning points, such as the Middle Ages of Genghis Khan and the time of Alexander the Great. In the course of the story the heroine, Ariel, must discover what actions are required to help bring forth the new age.
How did you go about researching the background for a book of this scope?
The ideas for every scene and plot in my books are based on my own personal experience. In hindsight, I feel very lucky that over the years I was forced, by financial necessity more than choice, to live and work in places where I was exposed to colorful people and interesting situations. For instance, The Eight was based on my years in the petroleum industry of North Africa. And in The Magic Circle, Ariel’s job as a nuclear materials expert is based on the three years in the 1970s that I worked at a nuclear site in Idaho. In preparation for this book, I also lived in Vienna and Germany–where, along with a director of the German College of Dowsers, I dowsed the podium where Hitler always stood at the Nuremberg rallies.
I try never to write an action scene that I haven’t experienced first-hand. In The Eight there’s the Sirocco at sea and the Sahara sandstorm. I didn’t plan on being in an avalanche or going over the falls of a river like my characters in The Magic Circle, but I’ve gotten a lot of literary mileage out of such experiences.
I always want to tell a story in my novels, but I admit that, like my readers, I’m an information junkie. We have a ten-room house with–at last count–twenty-seven bookcases and more than six thousand books. Since The Magic Circle is about ancient and modern views of transformation I had to delve into many cultures. I learned, for example, that major events happening now have been predicted from the time of Babylon and ancient Egypt. What my readers seem to love is the feeling of being drawn into the story in such a way that they learn enormous amounts about history, science, and so on–without feeling they’ve had to work at it. That’s my job: entertainment, from the French entretenir, to hold them between–in this case, between the pages. But I have to do plenty of hard work to make it seem easy.
You originally planned to write a very different book after The Eight and A Calculated Risk. How does The Magic Circle fit in?
I had actually outlined the book I was planning–a story about painters. But I couldn’t get the research done. It was almost as if doors were being shut against me, museums were closed, books were out of print, things were thrown up to block me–literally, in one case. Traffic jams prevented me from getting to a museum in Naples, and when I finally got there, all the paintings I needed to see were out being cleaned! I finally gave in and switched to another project.
I had thought of the idea of a millennial book–a book about what happens at the turning of the aeon–as early as 1979 when I was living in Idaho. When I started writing it again, it seemed almost magical: all doors opened and the seas parted. Then while we were living in Germany in 1989, people started coming across the border in their little cars from East Berlin to have dinner with us, and they told us the gate of the Berlin Wall was suddenly open and people were tearing the wall down with their hands, just like the Bastille two hundred years earlier. I now have a piece of the wall in my rock collection.
The collapse of walls and of regimes too rigid to accept change–the instantaneous sweeping away of the old and inflexible–appeared in all the ancient predictions as the very first sign of the arrival of the coming aeon. So when I pulled out my old outlines and files for The Magic Circle, and I found that even the title and the chapter headings I’d written ten years earlier reflected what was happening now, I knew it was kismet.
How do you feel about The Magic Circle now?
The Magic Circle was a very important book for me. A breakthrough book.
At an early age, I knew that the kinds of stories I wanted to tell were going to require a larger palette, a very different palette than the one provided by the existing structure of the western novel. I needed a storytelling palette, with lots of colors and contrasts. Even as a child, I listened to the tales of the mountain men of the Rockies and wrote them down. I’ve kept an archive of the oral literature of Native Americans, and of Latin America and the southwest. I did my postgraduate studies in the literature of Black writers in French and English, in Africa, Europe, and America. Many of these writers, like Wole Soyinka, Amos Tutuola, and Chinua Achebe, were creating new forms for the novel that didn’t exist in the west–more archetypal. In my writing today, I borrow from all these diverse techniques.
In The Eight, two parallel action stories are woven together within a plot that itself is an ongoing two-hundred-year chess game with thirty-two characters in each part that are the chess pieces. There are tales-within-tales, a tradition from the Persian, like The 1001Nights, but which I expanded so that the tales are sometimes as many as five or six layers deep. For instance, in one scene Robespierre tells the painter Jacques-Louis David a story about the time he went to visit Rousseau on the Isle of Poplars and Rousseau told him a story about meeting Casanova at the Venice opera, and tells the tale that Casanova told him–and all the while Charlotte Corday is overhearing the entire nest of stories from a back room. I wanted readers to drop so deeply into the
novel that ultimately they felt that they too were listening from that back room inside the book.
In The Magic Circle I was able to stretch the envelope even further: Taking stories, myths, and legends that have sprung from dozens of cultures over thousands of years, I wove them all together into a single plot. Each story takes the heroine, along with the reader, through a series of initiations–the Catholic Mass, Druid shamanic initiation, Sufi Islam initiation–steps that leads us not only deeper into the mystery at the core of the book, but deeper into the heart of the Ancient Mysteries as well. The purpose of all initiation is transformation. Writing the book was a kind of transformation for me, as I intended it to be for the reader.
Adolf Hitler plays a part in The Magic Circle. Why did you decide to include him, and how did you feel about that?
You can’t write a book about the aeon, the millennium, or even this century without mentioning Adolf Hitler. Let’s face it, he was a pivotal figure, and you really have to discuss the fact that he and his followers were involved in the occult.
Though Hitler only has a walk-on part in The Magic Circle–even smaller than Napoleon’s in The Eight–as a character he ended up overshadowing the other minor characters I’d already researched and had planned to include in the story, like Trotsky, Mussolini, Stalin, or Ho Chi Minh. How did I feel about writing about him? Pretty depressed.
I spent months researching the Nazis and found it totally exhausting. Friends sent me fetishes and talismans to hang on my wall–a Native American mandala, a Japanese temple bell, a Zuni animal necklace, a Virgin Mary from Ephesus, Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs. I think they really helped.
But I really felt that too many books and films–even those of his own time–seemed to dilute or glamorize Hitler as the Prince of Darkness, a symbol or caricature, someone from another planet possessed by an inexplicable evil force, like Darth Vader. The Hitler who emerged from my research was bone-chillingly real. I started by reading Hitler’s writings and speeches, and it soon became apparent that he was extremely clear about his goals from the very beginning, goals that lead directly to the theme of my book. Hitler’s chief goal was nothing short of the transformation of the world along the lines of Norse-Teutonic mythology, where the only salvation for Germanic superiority was to purify the bloodlines and scourge the earth of the pollution of other races: Blood and Soil. The Magic Circle asks us all to think about some key questions: “What is pollution?” “What is purification? “What is catharsis?” “What is transformation?”
How could you write about Hitler and not really write about the war and the Holocaust?
So many people have written from their own experience about World War II and the Holocaust, and written about these far better than I could. Also, I wanted to focus on the parts that I felt were left out of the story. I particularly wanted to pay tribute to those who are often overlooked or forgotten: the gypsies and others who were killed with no political-religious agenda, but only because they were “different.”
What do you hope your readers will take away from reading The Magic Circle?
My books are designed to be experienced and enjoyed at many levels. What each reader takes away from each book depends to a very large extent upon what he or she brings to it.
For instance, everybody can enjoy The Magic Circle without knowing anything about mythology, nuclear energy, or the battle between the British and Russian empires to control Central Asia–just as millions were able to read the love The Eight without understanding the first thing about chess. But the more you know about any one aspect of my books, the greater your appreciation will be of what’s going on at a deeper level.
Of course, I hope everyone will learn something from my books, gain fresh insights into ideas and values, or be encouraged to think new thoughts. But I structure my books purposefully to enable the reader to read them without working at it: to be able to go through his or her own transformation process–a personal baptism in history and mystery–and still have great fun at the same time.
How would you describe your audience?
I’ve personally met or corresponded with thousands of my readers. They range in age from nine to ninety, and include children from Russia to Italy to Japan, chess grandmasters, artists, Nobel laureates, high school and college students, esoterics–you name it. These aren’t groupies, but independent thinkers. If you had to find one thing in common, it would probably be curiosity–the desire to learn and grow.
The Eight was such an unusual book that my publishers realized they would have to create an audience for it from readers of other kinds of books–history, mystery, spy and detective, ancient and modern, esoteric, science fiction, techno-thriller, romance, puzzle novel, adventure novel, quest novel, and so on. It fit into no specific genre, but incorporated elements of each. Now there’s a group of people out there, all over the world, who truly appreciate this kind of book.
Younger readers sometimes have a quicker take on what’s happening in my books. They’re used to assimilating diverse information–sound bites, flipping channels. People who are fixed on a large, slowly paced, novel might have trouble the first time through. One woman I met told me she’d read The Eight seventeen times, because each time she felt she went to another level and was enriched differently.
With The Magic Circle, if you flip around and try to read the end first, you’re only going to be confused. As I said, you get out of it what you bring to each reading–even if it’s just the desire for a good read.
Readers often form strong bonds with your characters. How do the characters in The Magic Circle compare to those in The Eight or A Calculated Risk?
I like Ariel Behn better than any of my previous heroines. She’s more intelligent and at the same time more vulnerable. She’s my first heroine who doesn’t necessarily need to have a career, and also she’s the first one to have a family–the rest, like Valentine and Mireille in The Eight, are always orphaned at an early age.
Ariel’s family is scattered all over the world–they meet her in various places in critical parts of the story and reveal to her, little by little, the mystery behind the mystery. For instance, there’s her uncle Lafcadio, a world-class violinist in Vienna, and his “companion,” Bambi, a beautiful young cellist. Ariel’s mother Jersey and grandmother Pandora were both famous opera stars on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and her aunt Zoe was a dancer in Paris and a protege of Isadora Duncan. And then there’s Lafcadio’s valet, Volga Dragonoff, who reveals the mysterious secrets of his homeland
in Central Asia. I had enormous fun living with them all.
You’ve said that as a writer you go through a kind of transformation as you work. Could you elaborate?
The process of writing The Magic Circle has transformed me by giving me a larger perspective on the whole cycle of what has occurred on earth. I’ve become more altruistic and committed to helping the earth and its life forms. I’ve been to the ancient sites–Troy, Carthage, the home of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus, the home of the great goddess in Central Anatolia–and I’ve begun to put in perspective how humans have interacted with the planet for better or worse, these millennia. We’ve made mistakes and terrific advances along the way in understanding life and the universe. Writing this book helped me to see how we can develop our assets and cut our liabilities. It helped me to see how everything is tied together. That’s clearly the theme of the book: The World Knot.
As any fiction writer will tell you, writing itself is a transformation. At some point in each book, you come to the realization that the author is not the person in charge, and that things are happening that you didn’t plan or expect. If you have command of the material up front, the story, research, and characters, then you have to be able to let go, let everything flow through you whether it’s good or evil, let yourself dissolve a little, as it does in the alchemical process. In The Magic Circle, I had planned the period between the wars and the role of the god Dionysus. I didn’t expect the Boer War, or for Jesus to appear in person. I couldn’t write the story of this century without the Boer War which, as my heroine’s uncle tells her, “first baptized our century in blood.” And Jesus sort of bumped Dionysus aside a little as if to say, “You can’t tell this story without me being there.”
You can’t write a book this complex if you’re going to be a control freak or a nitpicker. You have to let it evolve. My heroine expresses a lot of the feelings we have when we’re tackling a job this big. With THE MAGIC CIRCLE, I learned that I had to hang loose and learn to dance on the waves–as Ariel finally gets to do at the end.
You’ve spent much of your professional life involved with computers. How do you feel about them?
The Magic Circle is the first book I’ve written on a computer, and it confirmed my worst fears of how much I would hate writing a book when I can’t find where I’ve said something. This probably explains why there is absolutely no high-tech material whatsoever in The Magic Circle, as opposed to my other books. I got so frustrated with the waste of paper, just printing things out trying to find them. . Ten years ago I had typed The Eight on my IBM Selectric, and cut and pasted it together on the floor, so I knew if the French Terror scene was over near the sofa. The biggest problem with
a computer is also the thing that makes it easy to use–the editing. I’d still prefer to go back to sitting in a cafe in Paris and writing on a yellow pad.
What is your next project?
It’s a story about painters, in the Elizabethan Renaissance. I’ve been a painter; I used to support myself by portrait painting, though my goal was always to be a writer. But I find it relaxing to paint while working on a long book; it lets me move my arms around and think about absolutely nothing.
In my story I focus on three painters: Rubens, El Greco, and Caravaggio. The research for this book was hampered at the beginning because I found that many art historians and curators weren’t really interested in the painters themselves–in their drives, in what makes them paint, in the social history of art, external events that shaped the individual. Often they’re not even interested in the painter’s techniques. Like collectors, their interest seemed more focused on the provenance of a work.
I know a great many painters. Painters are far more driven than writers, or they wouldn’t be able to do it at all. Their paintings generally aren’t worth anything until they’re dead, and they need patrons–today these are galleries and museums–just in order to stay alive. Painters are very private people who work inside their heads, like fiction writers. A number of them are unpleasant and antisocial. When I’ve interviewed painters for this book, they always asked if I was going to say what I think drives them. When I tell them I believe it is “passion,” they always smile. That’s the story I hope to tell in my next book.
How will your new book fit in with your other books?
Ancient philosophers believed that there were four primary elements, from which all other matter was created: earth, air, fire, and water. A Calculated Risk was my earth book, dealing with finances and banking, the material world. The Eight was my air or spirit book. The Magic Circle is my water book, about the age of pouring out, the transformation from the Age of Pisces the Fish and the transformation to the Age of Aquarius whose symbol is the water bearer. And my next book, about the passion of art, will be my fire book.