Interview with Robert Marshall

Ulrike Muller:  Maybe we should start by talking about your title.

Robert Marshall:  A Separate Reality was the title of one of Carlos Castaneda’s books. That’s the source. Of course it has other connotations, but that’s the most important one. Mark Grosfeld, my narrator, is an effeminate twelve year old who reads Castaneda and tries to live by his teachings. He’s trying to achieve enlightenment in middle school. It’s a suburban vision quest. Which doesn’t turn out well.

UM:  How does Mark learn about Castaneda?

RM:  Through Anna Voigt – she’s his teacher and mentor. She introduces him to a lot of books.

UM:  In many ways this did seem to be a book about books. I assume that’s part of what you’re intending by using as your title the title of someone else’s book. It’s a kind of appropriation, a re-reading.

RM:  I wouldn’t disagree. A re-reading of the seventies in particular, I suppose.

UM:  Mark is interested in different kinds of spirituality. I wondered why you focussed on Castaneda.

RM:  A number of reasons. He brings together so many new age motifs. Castaneda stole from everywhere. He was no slouch at appropriation himself.

UM:  Some people reading this won’t know who he was.

RM:  We still don’t entirely know. Castaneda emerged in the late sixties, supposedly an anthropologist from UCLA who’d gone to Mexico and found a Yaqui Shaman, don Juan, who initiated him into an occult world. They took a lot of peyote. The books are structured, more or less, as dialogues between Castaneda and don Juan. Castaneda plays the part of the skeptical westerner. The books were big best sellers. Castaneda had a cult following. He was on the cover of Time. He was praised by everyone from Robert Hughes to Joyce Carol Oates. There were twelve books in all, and they kept getting stranger. Carlos learned to fly. He grew a beak. As the seventies wore on, people began to suspect he was a fraud. But the books continued to sell. They still do.

UM:  Was he a fraud?

RM:  If you’re going to be even slightly rational, you have to conclude that. He died in 1998. His followers kept his death secret for two months. According to the obituaries, almost everything on his death certificate was, at best, questionable. He’d lied about all the facts of his life. It turned out that he’d gotten the idea for the name of his sorcerer, Don Juan Matus, from a bottle of wine of the Portugese wine, Mateus, which was quite popular in the late sixties. So yes, he was a fraud But he was a fascinating fraud. A fraud who spoke a kind of truth. I find this contradiction compelling. I think of Castaneda as a figure not entirely unlike the guy who comes to River City in The Music Man. An impostor with something important to say.

UM:  Which was?

RM:  Simply put, that the world is mysterious. That we aren’t who society and our parents tell us we are – or that we’re more than that. And just that it’s strange to have a self. None of this is original to Castaneda. But his was a seductive blend.

UM:  Different eras are susceptible to different kinds of fraud.

RM:  Absolutely. But as I mentioned, he still has followers. He seems to be pretty big in Eastern Europe. And I still run into people who believe in him.

UM:  What’s that like?

RM:  Strange. But fascinating. Sometimes I’ll begin to question myself. I’ll start to think:  Gee, maybe it’s just my rational western mind getting in the way.

UM:  That’s Mark’s predicament.

RM:  Exactly. It’s the predicament any vulnerable reader faces with these books. When you read Castaneda, you identify with Carlos. Don Juan will say something Carlos thinks contradicts something he’s said earlier. But then Don Juan will rebuke him, telling him he hasn’t yet transcended his rational left brain self. Since many of his readers badly want some kind of transcendence, they keep buying into it. And buying books. Profits are made. It’s not entirely unlike being with a bad psychoanalyst. The patient may think the analyst is full of shit. But the analyst can always trump the patient by telling her she’s repressing the truth, she’s in denial. And the more you’ve invested in the process, the more you need to believe it’s valid.

UM:  In the novel, Mark is in analysis.

RM:  No, he’s in therapy

UM:  Why?

RM:  Short answer:  because he’s queer. He’s sent for “help” because he wants to be a girl. This makes his parents and teachers anxious. To deal with their anxiety, he’s sent to a psychiatrist. It’s an old tale.

UM:  Does the therapy do him any good?

RM:  No, not at all. There’s a great thing Edmund White said about his early therapy. That it taught him to always doubt himself. That’s what happens with Mark. A quiet, persistent subversion.

UM:  Are you opposed to therapy?

RM:  It helps many people. But it can hurt too.

UM:  What about analysis?

RM:  Same answer. I’m a skeptic. But I’m a skeptic about most things.

UM:  Is Mark?

RM:  No. Mostly, he rather desperately wants to believe.

UM:  Why?

RM:  He’s an effeminate boy living in a world with no place for effeminate boys. He wants to escape. But where? That’s why the idea of transcendence is so appealing. The only place he can really go is in his head. He looks for ways to do this. Through music. Through poetry. Through eastern religion. At various points in the novel, Mark’s a Bahai, a Taoist, and a Buddhist. And a Castaneda-ist.

UM:  And a Jew.

RM:  Always a Jew. But for Mark, Judaism doesn’t work as a means of escape. It’s where he’s coming from. It’s his parents’ thing. It doesn’t promise the same magical way out Castaneda offers. It’s too rational.

UM:  You seem to make a connection between religious thought and Mark’s obsessive compulsiveness at the end of the book, if that’s what it is. Is that what it is?

RM:  Sure. Although I’m always a bit uncomfortable with diagnostic labels.

UM:  Why?

RM:  Once something is named, the name is often what we see – we think we know what it is. There are far more varieties of neuroses than could ever be named.

UM:   But we do need diagnoses, don’t we?

RM:  Yes, but it’s the artists job to try to get underneath.

UM:   OK. But I was asking . . ..

RM:  About religion and OCD. I was thinking about the dangers of the search for perfection. That’s present in all religions. Its very appealing – and dangerous. Because you can’t be perfect. But if you believe you ought to be, and discover you’re not, you may have to punish yourself. Often severely.

UM:  It’s far too simple to say that religion teaches that you have to be perfect. Judaism doesn’t. Buddhism doesn’t.

RM:  You’re right. But all religions contain different threads. And that thread is there. I should make clear I’m not concerned with doctrinal Buddhism, or Judaism, or doctrinal Taoism, if there is such a thing. I’m concerned with the way ideas play out in people’s real lives. I think there’s a tendency in a lot of contemporary American fiction to discount the importance of ideas. Physical things are important, emotions are important, product names are, but ideas seem to be seen as inconsequential. But they’re part of why people do what they do. People have ideas about how they should live, act, think, be. Ideas and emotions are woven together. One of my goals in this novel was to show how different characters are motivated by their ideas – and their ideals.

UM:  For example?

RM:  Well the family in general, the father in particular, is motivated by liberal political idealism.

UM:  That doesn’t seem such a bad thing.

RM:  Far from it. It’s just in contrast to Anna’s ideas, her world view, her version of idealism. So Mark is torn.

UM:  Explain a little more what you mean by Anna’s idealism – or Anna and Mark’s idealism.

RM:  It’s sort of along the lines of the Bishop Berkeley-Buddhist-the-world- is- your mind kind of Idealism. Which underpins Castaneda too. If you perceive a talking coyote – well it’s real, since it’s in your mind, and the mind is what’s real. One of the interesting things about the sixties and the early seventies was that people were so idealistic. But there were different kinds of idealism, and tensions between them.

UM:  And there are always the contradictions between your ideals and your life.

RM:  Yes. It’s hard for Mark to practice no-mind in middle school.

UM:  You also mentioned poetry as a way out. Mark belongs to a poetry writing group.

RM::  There’s a group of older kids who smoke pot and write poetry. They meet at Anna’s house to put out the school literary magazine. It’s Mark’s refuge.

UM:  But not an entirely happy one?

RM:  Well, like most refuges, it’s temporary. I won’t go into all the particulars. But there are some underlying tensions Mark can’t put into words. There’s a prevailing idea among these young hippie poets about what a poem should be. Mark can’t fit his experience into this aesthetic.

UM:  What kind of poetry does Mark write?

RM:  His big influences are TS Eliot and Joni Mitchell.

UM:  What about Anna?

RM:  She’s a big influence too.

UM:  The relationship is very important. There’s a kind of erotic undercurrent.

RM:  That topic is so charged these days. I want to say of course there’s an erotic undercurrent. She’s a teacher, a real teacher, one of those rare ones. I think that’s always there in that sort of relationship.

UM:  Is Anna based on a teacher you had?

RM:  I was fortunate to have more than one amazing teacher.

UM:  But this is an autobiographical novel?

RM:  There’s a lot of myself in it. I did grow up in Arizona, with liberal Jewish parents. I did read Castaneda. In some ways there are some very close resemblances. But other things are complete fabrications. The strange thing is that if you have one thing in there that’s true, then people will tend to think it’s all true. Not to mention that after you’ve spent six years working on a novel, you start to think that some of the stuff you’ve made up actually happened.

UM:  You begin the book with a quote from The New York Times Book Review. Why?

RM:  I figured it was unlikely that The New York Times was going to review my book. So I thought:  I’ll get a quote from them in there somehow. It’s from the seventies. It’s about how important Castaneda is. I wanted, right at the start, to widen the social context. And to set up a certain ironic tone.

UM:  Do you think of this as an ironic novel?

RM:  I think of it as ironically sincere. But not everyone gets the irony. Some have read it as if it were a tribute to Castaneda. I kid you not.

UM:  How did that make you feel?

RM:  I was somewhat bummed. But after all, people misunderstand each other all the time. I’ve written a novel full of misunderstandings. It’s not something that ever stops. This is true for everyone. I don’t see why I should be exempt.

Ulrike Muller is a poet and photographer. She lives in Brooklyn.