An Interview with Richard C. Morais
Interview courtesy of Susan Agar and KGB Bar Lit Magazine
Morais’s debut novel, The Hundred-Foot Journey, is the international best-seller that has sold in 21 territories around the world and is in active film development. His first book, an unauthorized biography of Pierre Cardin, was published by Bantam Press in 1991 to critical acclaim. He currently lives in New York, where he is also the editor of Barron’s Penta, a quarterly magazine and website offering insights and advice to affluent families. An American born in Lisbon and raised in Zurich, Morais lived in London for 17 years, where he served as Forbes magazine’s European Bureau Chief.
Q. You wrote your first novel, The Hundred-Foot Journey, in the voice of a young Indian man who becomes a chef in Paris. In your new novel, Buddhaland Brooklyn, the narrator and central character is a middle age Japanese Buddhist priest who is sent to Brooklyn. One of the striking things about both books is how different the first-person narrators are from you, a middle age, middle class white guy. What inspires you to write fiction?
A. When I was a teenager I desperately wanted to be an actor. But I realized the life-style wasn’t for me. I also wanted to have a family, so I moved into writing as a way to make a living and to also satisfy my creative side. But that love of acting has never really left me. So when I write fiction, I try and do it like a character actor would. One of the joys of fiction is that for a little while you get to pretend you’re someone very far from your real life.
Q. So, if you approach writing fiction as an actor, how do you get into these characters?
A. I once interviewed the great French actress Jean Moreau in her dressing room just before she went onstage in Paris, and I asked her how she prepared for her roles. She said for her it was the costume. That was her route into creating a character. She would first figure out what that person would wear. She would work from the outside in. That really stuck with me, and I try to do something similar. I first research some external details and then try to build the interior character after that.
Q. You’re a seasoned financial journalist. Some people might consider financial journalism and fiction writing about as far apart as you can get on the writing spectrum.
A. As an undergraduate, I studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and after graduating into the Reagan recession, I eventually became a reporter at Forbes, which, when I was there in the 1980’s and 90’s was a very unique place. They had a great editor, Jim Michaels, who used to tell us that if you want to train to be a business journalist, read poetry, because that’s what was missing from business journalism. He’d say anyone can teach you how to calculate return on equity, but he wanted us to think like a business person and write like a poet. It was very unusual, and Jim was one of my mentors.
Q. Going back to your novel, Buddhaland Brooklyn has a lot of Buddhist doctrine in it. Can you talk a bit about Buddhism in your life?
A. First of all, The Headwater Sect in the book is entirely fictional. I’ve taken Buddhist doctrine from several different sects and combined it with Western thinkers like William James to create this sect. But it is a very personal book. Reverend Oda was a vehicle for me to come to terms with my own faith as a Buddhist. I was born Episcopalian and Catholic, but my parents were fair-weather practitioners. Even as a young teenager I was obsessed with Buddhism. I don’t know where it came from. At the age of 18, I was at Sarah Lawrence and I heard these incredible sounds, which was a group of Buddhists praying. I was very lost, and I said, “I’ve got to do whatever they’re doing.” That’s how it started. For the next 20 years, I was a very devout follower of this particular Japanese sect. But as with any religion, one of the central tenets is “we have the magic sauce,” and only if you follow these particular ways of behavior and praying and thinking and all of that, do you get the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. When I hit middle age, I just couldn’t believe that anymore, that only this handful of Buddhists knew the secret. Any deeply religious experience I’ve had has almost been serendipitous.
Q. You’re sounding a lot like William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience.
A. He was certainly a major influence in the book. At one point I think you have to, like a teenager, rebel against the rigid doctrine of a religion in order for it to be personally meaningful and not just rote and formulaic. I have reached a point personally where I’ve dropped out of the official Buddhist sect, but I do say the prayers everyday, which suits me at this point in my life. So the arc of my faith is sort of captured in Buddhaland Brooklyn.
As he approaches his fortieth birthday, the introverted monk Seido Oda is ordered by his superior to leave behind his peaceful refuge in the remote mountains of Japan and set up a temple in Brooklyn’s Little Calabria. There Oda is confronted with an uphill struggle to get to understand the ways of his new host country, and finds his patience and beliefs tested by a motley crew of misguided American Buddhists – a shock which will enable him to come to terms with painful memories of his past and finally experience that sense of belonging he has always sought.
Buddhaland Brooklyn is an entertaining and edifying meditation on faith, cultural divides and the meaning of true acceptance.
Q. Doesn’t Reverend Oda too have to incorporate his personal life experience and make it somehow cohere with his doctrinal belief?
A. In this book, in addition to entertaining people, which I consider my first job in fiction, I’m trying to examine something that I think is rarely discussed, which is the connection between one’s personal psychology and the doctrine of the faith one has embraced—how the two intersect, how they conflict and how they can reinforce and renew each other. There is a key scene in the book when Reverend Oda is at a very difficult point and is at the end of his rope, and he has this religious experience with birds coming to listen to him praying. That actually happened to me when I was 19, on the Lake of Zurich in Switzerland. It was an actual experience of great personal despair bringing on a genuine spiritual moment. And I called on this personal crisis in my life while creating Reverend Oda’s story.
Q. In fact, Reverend Oda, the narrator of the book, is rather rigid by nature and habit. As you were writing, did you realize that he was not an immediately likeable character?
A. I did realize he was not going to be an immediately likeable character, but I didn’t realize the extent to which he was not likeable, which my editor Whitney Frick at Scribner pointed out. She pointed out an important technical point, which is, how do you get people to keep reading the book if they get turned off by the main character early on in the book? It is true that he’s not immediately likeable, but the point of this book is to show how someone who’s arrogant, a misanthrope, a misogynist, a homophobe – very politically incorrect – comes to America and how America changes him. I hope that people see by the end of the book that he has a genuine transformation and has a change of heart.
Q. In the same way that you said you created a fictional Buddhism, to me the Brooklyn in the book has a fable-like quality. Was that deliberate?
A. Yes, and people said the same thing about The Hundred-Foot Journey. Maybe because my mother was a Jungian analyst, I grew up with and love fables. I think all of life is in fables and collective stories and mythology. It’s part of the stew. I do in part want to create a magic, fable-like world, but I also want to have enough accurate, credible detail so that it’s also grounded in reality. So I’m constantly trying to do both.
Q. We also lived in Brooklyn at one time.
A. In the 1980’s, and it was very different than it is now. Carroll Gardens where we lived was like a 1950’s version of southern Italy. It’s a Brooklyn, which doesn’t really exist today, but the neighborhood that I created in this book has lots of elements of that old Brooklyn.
Q. Reverend Oda is an artist, a master of calligraphy and a scholar of haiku, and haiku is a theme and a device in the book. There are two haiku, which seem to express the change in Reverend Oda. Both are about Brooklyn and are written by you.
A. They’re the only two written by me. I quote real haiku poets throughout the rest of the book. I studied with Albert Sadler, a fantastic Comparative Religion teacher at Sarah Lawrence, and he assigned an exquisite book called The Year of My Life by the great haiku poet Issa. Issa was most famous for capturing the Buddhist notion of the Middle Way—that is walking through life with one foot firmly in this world and one foot firmly in the spiritual world. The Year of My Life is a very slim volume, and it’s a mixture of prose and poetry. It’s actually an entire life symbolically condensed into one year. I was inspired both by The Year of My Life and one of my favorite movies, Fellini’s Amarcord, which is about a fable-like town on the Adriatic and takes place during the four seasons of one year. I was intrigued that both these works from completely different epochs, mediums and corners of the world had the same premise at their center – a life or world condensed into a symbolic year. That premise was the germ that started this book.
Q. There are many themes in this book. Another theme you write lyrically about is fishing.
A. Fishing is terribly important to me. That is the faith, the religion that my father handed to me. It’s hard to put the beauty of fly-fishing into words, but I associate it with men. I associate it with the bonding between father and son and friends. You’re constantly walking along the river when you’re fly-fishing and you’re always changing flies. It’s very active. You’re not just sitting in a boat. When my brothers and I went fishing with my father, it was serious work, very concentrated, long days, fishing through any kind of weather, just flogging that water. So it’s a lesson in endurance on one hand. But fly-fishing is also incredibly elegant and sensitive, and it’s about reading the environment around you. To me, all of life is in fishing.
Q. To conclude, any words of advice for people who, while writing fiction, also have, as you do, demanding full-time jobs?
A. I’m asked that a lot. I think that when you’re really writing fiction, of course it’s about the time you put your butt on the seat in a disciplined way. But there are days when the demands of everyday life overwhelm my time to write fiction. There are deadlines in journalism that I can’t miss, and they sometimes require very long days for a stretch of time. But at those times, I still try to do something for my fiction each day to keep it alive internally. For example, I recently, for my work at Barron’s Penta, had to fly to a luxury summit in Palm Beach, and on the way back, I was in line at the airport and there were 22 wheelchairs in front of me. These were “snowbirds” flying back north. There were little tufts of white hair sticking up over the backs of all these wheelchairs, and suddenly the statistics we’ve all seen about the aging demographics of our population were viscerally in front of me. This was the image that to me captured all the statistics, in that one scene at the airport. So that was writing for me. That scene has been internalized. I don’t know or when how I’m going to use it. But somehow those scenes from the outside world pop up as images when I’m writing fiction. So, I’d say, observe life and let it in and on some level, you’re always writing when you’re doing that.
Interviewer Susan Agar has had short fiction published by Solstice, Haunted Waters Press and The Musehouse Journal and is a contributor to the KGB Bar Lit Magazine. Before recently moving to New York, she was the Program Coordinator of Musehouse: A Center for the Literary Arts in Philadelphia, where she taught a writing workshop about grief and loss. She has an M.A. in English Literature from London University, and an A.B. from Sarah Lawrence College.
Buy a copy of Buddhaland Brooklyn, a novel about clashing civilizations and the search for truth across cultural divides