An Interview with Michael Gurian

Q: When did you start writing visionary fiction?

A: It began in my late teens, but I didn’t know what it was yet.  Even in the books I read, I liked the visionary elements very much.  When I read science fiction as a teenager, I was most interested in the sci-fi books that delved into the human mind, like Robert Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND.  I loved the mental powers its hero has.  When I read books by Stephen King (CARRIE, DREAMCATCHER) or by Dean Koontz (WATCHERS, LIGHTENING), it was the enhanced mental abilities of the characters that intrigued me. When I read literary fiction in college, I enjoyed writers like Hermann Hesse, who was a very “mind-oriented” writer.  The stream of consciousness writers (Joyce, Faulkner) then the magical realists out of South America, like Marquez, wrote literature that tried to mimic the way the human mind flowed through life.  The interior world made exterior--this was what I liked reading.

Even when I read mystery novels as a teen, it was the “thinkers” I liked the most (Nero Wolfe, Sherlock Holmes).  I liked the mental puzzle of life.  Carlos Castaneda’s books intrigued me in the seventies because they showed the limitless potential of human consciousness.  In all this, I was gravitating toward books that showed the expansion of human consciousness.  I was lucky to be a baby boomer; our whole lives have been lived in the context of a human mind evolving at the fastest rate our brains have ever evolved in history.

So the “brain” and the “mind” have been my interest since very young.  Not surprisingly, then, when I began to write, I wrote books based in brain science.  I studied the way the human mind works and hoped to help people understand themselves, their relationships, their children, their schools and their communities from a brain-based point of view.  At the same time, I’ve been writing fiction that focuses, also, on the human brain from an imaginative point of view.  Many themes cannot be dealt with in nonfiction that can in fiction.

Imagining the limitless mind is the subject of my visionary fiction (for a complete definition of visionary fiction, see below).  I think there are two uncharted frontiers in contemporary life:  outer space and the human mind.  I think we are evolving into a new kind of human being, one that will not be able to fully explore outer space unless it parallels that exploration with the expansion of human consciousness.

Q: When you say “a new kind of human being,” is this the “new human” you talk about in your novel, THE MIRACLE? 

A: Yes.  I think we are evolving into a new species of human being.  Our exploration of the human mind leads us into this new human.
For about two hundred years we have been focused as a race on accessing more and more of our own power of mind.   Every few hundred thousand years our brains expand their abilities in such leaps that our cultures have to follow.  This last happened millennia ago, when we evolved to employ abstract intelligence in our civilization building.  We came to rely on reason (the cerebral cortex) more than on instinct (the brain stem and lower limbic system).  In THE WONDER OF CHILDREN, my nonfiction study, and in THE MIRACLE, my latest novel, I have hoped to make sense of our contemporary evolution in both scientific and imaginative terms.  Our minds are now expanding from the 10 percent brain usage that has characterized homo sapiens to perhaps 15 - 20 percent brain use by the end of this century.  This is a significant leap in use of the mind--a new leap in human evolution--and visionary fiction is about this new human.  In terms of genus and species, I think we are in the process of evolving from homo sapiens to homo infiniens.

Q: How would you define “visionary fiction” in this context?

A:  “Visionary fiction” is fiction in which the expansion of the human mind drives the plot.   Where science fiction is characterized by storytelling based in expanded use of science to drive narrative, visionary fiction is characterized by storytelling based in expanded use of mental ability to drive narrative.

My visionary novel, THE MIRACLE, is driven by the characters’ immersion in new experiences of mind.  Expanded mental abilities also drive my first novel, AN AMERICAN MYSTIC, which was part visionary novel, part spiritual fiction.  Carlos Castaneda’s THE TEACHINGS OF DON JUAN (and all his Don Juan books) were driven by new mental experience, the human mind’s expansion of mental ability.  The television show TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL is built on expanded mental ability (in its case, the ability to see angels).

The key to this genre is the focus on mental ability.  In visionary books, the following sorts of things happen in ways central to plot and character:
  • mystical experiences (sudden, loving experiences of mind that transform self)
  • visions (seeing ‘God,’ ‘angels,’ ‘power’ in dreams or other waking images)
  • clairvoyance (seeing into someone else’s future or past)
  • telekinesis (the ability to alter the composition or motion of physical objects using mental ability)
  • telepathy (reading other people’s minds)
  • meta-telepathy (controlling other people’s minds)
  • hallucinations and meta-hallucinations (seeing what is “not there” and seeing what is “not there” many different times in similar patterns)
  • precognitive dreams (dreams that come true years later)
  • clusters of eerie coincidence
  • psychic and paranormal experience (not the dial a 900 number kind of stuff, but the kind that makes a reader stop and say, ‘I think I had a grandmother who was like this,’ or ‘I had an experience like this years ago.’)
  • “presences,” like ghosts (not exaggerated horror movie ghosts, but the chill of a presence you can’t turn away from)
  • after-death and after-life experiences
  • visitations from “spirits”
  • channeling
  • feeling safe and utterly one with the world (whether in a religious context or while out in nature or, suddenly, in any place at all)
  • profound insight that transforms depression into joy
  • remote viewing (seeing what is happening somewhere else in the world as its happening)
  • past life realization (dreams or visions of oneself as another person long ago)
  • uncanny accuracy of personal intuition.
Remember, these are fiction, so we don’t have to spend time “proving” the existence of angels, or of telepathy, or of light that curves the human mind, or whether intuition is right or wrong.  Since these are fiction, we can enjoy the visionary experience for what it is--a new direction of the human mind.  In the same way, science fiction does not need us to “prove” that there is such a thing as a “transporter” or “the starship Enterprise.”  If the story is well written, we will experience verisimilitude--the sense of reality--and let the story lead us.  Good visionary fiction can encourage the same kind of “suspension of disbelief” where mental ability is concerned.

Billions of people are having uncanny experiences.  These same people don’t have a fictional world, yet, in which to see their experiences reflected and given paths of meaning.  Visionary fiction, with its visionary realism, not only gives these people a mirror for their mental and emotional experiences, but ultimately gives our whole civilization access to experimental landscapes in which to keep expanding the human mind through the power of story.

Q: How did you, personally, get interested in focusing your fiction on these kinds of experiences.

A: I grew up with a mother who had a number of these kinds of visionary experiences.  She was confronted by a ghost.  She had precognitive dreams and visions.  She saw in her mind a house we moved to years before we moved there.  She knew future events before they occurred.

I also have had many of these experiences myself.  For instance, in the early eighties when I was in England, I dreamt that my former girlfriend (who was married by now) was in the room with me.  She held out a baby, saying, “Mike, I want you to meet Rachel.”  I woke up with a start and called back to the States.  Her husband answered the phone, saying, “Yes, we just had a baby last night!  How did you know?  And how did you know we named her Rachel?”  I was thousands of miles away, and hadn’t been in contact with my former girlfriend for years.  How did I know the moment her baby was born, and the name?

This was a visionary experience.  This is the kind of experience I and a skeptic could argue about forever if we start with, “What’s the scientific explanation for that?”  I like scientific analysis and have based over a dozen of my nonfiction books on the kind of brain science that allows this debate.  But I also want to understand the experience without debate, as intuitive evidence of the human mind’s limitless abilities.  To this end, I write fiction plots that include, integrate and are driven by this kind of uncanny mental experience.
Everyone at some point in life has a mystical experience, an uncanny experience, an unexplainable mental vision.  Visionary fiction is about those moments in human life: the ones we have almost no known language for; the ones we hide from others or disbelieve; the ones we feel foolish or “woo woo” about; the ones we sense are leading us somewhere but don’t have a map by which to follow.  The greatest barrier to the expansion of human consciousness is the fear of new vision.  Visionary fiction is a way to push through the fear, a way of exploring the relationship of the world and the mind, in the same way that science fiction gives us a fearlessness to explore the human being’s relationship with science.

I have a personal interest in becoming fearless in my own growth as a human being, and visionary fiction, like all worthwhile art, is a way that I, as an artist, can share the human journey toward of courage with others.   I continue to write science-based nonfiction, social philosophy, and literary fiction; meanwhile, I hope to continue writing visionary fiction because it is its own unique challenge and joy.

Q: How is “visionary fiction” different than “religious fiction,” or “spiritual fiction” or new age literature in general?

A: Religious fiction is a phrase that generally means Christian fiction.  The most famous examples would be the LEFT BEHIND series.  In this kind of fiction, plot is driven by a religious topography.  Whether Christian, Jewish, Hindu in base, religious fiction is a footnote to the already written topography of the religion itself.  Visionary fiction has no established topography.  It is not based in a story already written long ago.

Where religious literature is pre-structured by a religion, “new age literature” tends to be the opposite: employing loose adventure formats which can be laden with personal wisdom teaching.  The topography or structure of the narrative is not very important in new age literature: the teaching is most important.  New age literature tends to be about laying out spiritual principles in lieu of established religion.

In a visionary fiction, even if the book uses a typical quest or adventure format, the mental abilities of characters are the key to the book, and those abilities take characters and plots into journeys that may or may not lead to the establishment of a new spirituality or religion.  Whatever wisdom teaching might occur is an integrated part of the narrative map created by the fiction--it is not the focus of the fiction.

Most new age fiction feels like it’s trying to be nonfiction.  Visionary fiction strives to be like the best of literary fiction: fictions that uncover new mental and emotional maps.

I make a distinction between “spiritual fiction” and “visionary fiction” that others may find to be too fine.  To me, books like THE CELESTINE PROPHECY are spiritual fiction rather than visionary fiction.  In spiritual fiction (as in new age literature), spirituality rather than mental ability drives the plot.  Spiritual fiction is more like new age fiction: adventure, quest plots which primarily serve as vehicles for wisdom and spirituality teaching.

Visionary fiction is fiction about the journey of the expanding human mind itself.  Visionary fiction has a clear signature--the story exists as a vehicle for showing how mental ability is expanding in its characters (and how that expansion affects everybody and the world).  My own book, THE MIRACLE, is written in this mode.  Visionary novels are not plots set up specifically to teach spirituality. Rather, the visionary stories exist to stretch human vision completely into realms of free mystery. 

It’s true, however, that a lot of visionary fiction is very spiritual (my own certainly has spiritual elements and elements of spiritual teaching).  And it’s also true that right now, in the publishing market, visionary fiction, spiritual fiction, new age fiction and even new age nonfiction all blur together for marketing purposes.  But I think there is a distinction to be made over the next decades between novels that are written for the purpose of teaching spirituality and novels that are written about our growing mental abilities per se, with the story itself breaking new ground.  The best of science fiction or literary fiction is not about teaching principles; it’s about the story itself, the pure naked story driving the reader to new realms of seeing.  This is the kind of literature visionary fiction strives to be.  Thus I see a distinction between it and the other literature that it is seemingly like.

Q: Are there others beside yourself who are writing visionary fiction?

A: As far as I can see thus far, visionary fiction is being written in other genres, as if in disguise (the Castaneda books are a clear example of this--visionary fictions that could not succeed as fiction thus were promoted by author and publisher as nonfiction).  Visionary fiction is now being written as nonfiction, religious fiction, science fiction, fantasy, new age nonfiction, etc.  Part of my unconscious motivation to write THE MIRACLE was to create a pure piece of visionary fiction, a novel that hopes to push the envelope of religious and new age literature toward a pure literary form called visionary fiction; in this form, the mind is the plot driver, rather than science, fantasy, spiritual teaching, religion, or any other established format.

Already, in other genres, visionary fiction has been peeking through for decades.  We’ve mentioned sci-fi; we also should mention the fantasy genre.  Michael Moorcock’s fantasy series, DANCERS AT THE END OF TIME, has elements of visionary fiction (the characters have extraordinary mental powers).  Orson Scott Card’s THE SEVENTH SON is similar (his characters also have new mental powers).  In Ursula Le Guin’s THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS we see similar mental topographies.  As far back as the Victorian era, there was visionary fiction; for example, G.K. Chesterton’s THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY. J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE NAVIGATOR can be characterized as visionary fiction.  I think we’ll gradually see visionary elements creep into detective and crime thrillers (in a book like SHIBUMI, by Trevanian, or Umberto Eco’s THE NAME OF THE ROSE, it already has), as writers and readers want crimes to be solved not only with reason or physical aggression but with even more of the brain.  The film industry has already utilized elements of visionary fiction (for instance, in X MEN and THE MATRIX).  Television shows have embraced visionary elements.  TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL, CROSSING JORDAN, and MIRACLES come to mind. The show THE DEAD ZONE is built completely around clairvoyance.
SORCERER’S CROSSING, by Taisha Abelar is visionary fiction, as is Marlo Morgan’s MUTANT MESSAGE DOWN UNDER.  Deepak Chopra’s THE LORDS OF LIGHT and James Redfield’s THE CELESTINE PROPHECY are seen as visionary fiction by the publishing industry.  About three years ago, publishers and booksellers decided to call certain spiritual and new age books “visionary fiction.”  For the last five years, publishers, agents, and booksellers have been having an intra-industry dialogue about whether to create a separate visionary fiction shelf in bookstores.  (Some stores have experimented with it already).  But because there is no vital and robust marketing niche for it, a lot of visionary fiction is being self-published, re-cast as nonfiction, hiding in other categories or genres, or simply not finding the light of day.

Q: What would have to happen for visionary fiction to succeed as a new genre all its own?

A: Publishers would have to identify the genre on the book jackets, then booksellers promote these books as a new genre.  Writers would have to write high quality books in this genre.  Agents would have to place visionary fiction with publishers without going for big advances.  Huge advances were paid for new age and visionary books after the success of such spiritual fiction as THE CELESTINE PROPHECY and MUTANT MESSAGE DOWN UNDER, but the new books didn’t succeed in the mainstream (and there were no visionary fiction shelves on which the actual visionary novels could be promoted); publishers lost millions of dollars.  It’s hard to blame them for being skittish about fully committing to a new genre when they’ve already lost money.

A new genre needs a ten year building period during which everyone, including authors and agents, need to carry the risk.  Some small publishers already specialize in spiritual and visionary work.  New World Library, Hampton Roads, Fair Winds come to mind.  They need to be encouraged.  I hope in the near future a press devoted only to visionary fiction (perhaps called Visionary Fiction Press) will start up and be successful.

Mainstream and religious writers who have large audiences would need to come out in support of the new genre.  Caroline Myss, author of ANATOMY OF THE SPIRIT, has talked eloquently about the development of a new human.  Deepak Chopra has written books in spiritual and visionary fiction.  Dan Millman, author of THE PATH OF THE EVERYDAY WARRIOR, has tirelessly lectured on expanded consciousness.  Many others must devote energy to making sure a new genre exists as a receptacle for stories about the changing human mind.

Q: What specific help do you need to help create this new genre?

A: I think we should form a Visionary Fiction Writer’s Association.  It ought to give out an annual award in the same way that science fiction writers give out the Hugo and Nebula, or literary judges give out the Pulitzer.

One person can’t take this project on (I’m certainly not the best organizer in the world and would be ill suited to organize an association or an award), but people with good organizational heads could make this happen.  If this takes off, it opens new avenues for writers over the next generations.  I envision a publishing culture in which my children and their children have access to visionary fiction in the same way that I--because of the hard work of previous generations--have access to science fiction.

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