Photo: Kerry Eielson.

Since 2001, the village of Labastide Esparbairenque in the remote Black Mountain region of southern France, has been home to La Muse artists’ and writers’ retreat and, more recently, an independent press, La Muse Books. The retreat draws artists and writers from different parts of the world (with different levels of acclaim) to live and work alongside each other in a stone manor house with a large terrace cut into a valley, with views to the mountains across it. The bells chime every half hour, and a freshwater spring carries water to the village, where Occitan is still spoken among the elders. The village is a cluster of stone buildings and ruins. Its population numbers around eighty people including those in far-flung hamlets and farms.

This tranquil setting of waterfalls, mountain streams, wind-farms and vineyards, belies the region’s violent history as a center of resistance to totalitarianism and genocide at two very different moments in French history. In the 13th century, it was home to the Cathars, a proto-Lutheran religious order whose dualist outlook led to surprisingly progressive social politics (for the period): tolerance of homosexuality—though they considered procreation ill advised, as it perpetuated the constraint of the spirit in a “tunic” of flesh—greater flexibility of gender roles, and a spiritual life outside the dictates of the Catholic Church. The aim of the Albigensian Crusade was the systematic murder of Cathars, though certain sects continued to practice in secret in the mountain villages of the Midi-Pyrénées. Then, in the 1940’s, the region harbored French resistance fighters, or Maquis, who partnered with the allies against the Vichy government who then controlled the region.

John Fanning, who runs La Muse with his wife, Kerry Eielson, knew little about the region or its history when he and Kerry left their jobs in New York City—reporter at Vanity Fair and editor at Elle respectively—to found La Muse, a risk that seemed utterly quixotic at the time. But over the last 20 years, La Muse has supported artists by creating, among other things, a space for questioning—not just the plot arcs of novels, but also how to live (one attribute of good fiction). In summer 2018, La Muse Books will publish Fanning’s debut novel, Ezekiel, which is full of such questions, particularly about the role of the contemporary writer vis-à-vis various social institutions and cultural norms. The book’s way of questioning grows out of Fanning’s encounter with the history of the Languedoc region, especially its history of resistance, both spiritual and political.

Ezekiel’s protagonist, Ezekiel Yusuf Moran, comes of age in Provence in the 1920’s and 30’s. His full name combines Arabic, Jewish, and Irish influences, communicating his position at the crossroads of cultures. In some ways, Ezekiel is a man from nowhere, and his sense of displacement is accentuated by his rejection of French nationalism and his taking up the mantle of the résistants during WWII. But the bulk of the novel takes place in the aftermath of war, and the warm-hearted book plays with the conventions of epic, as Ezekiel crosses postwar Europe, before traveling on to Scotland and Ireland, Mecca and India, in search of the sort of spiritual independence most threatened by (and threatening to) totalitarian regimes. In scope, the novel reaches beyond the 20th century, through its engagement with the ancient Judaic, mystical sect of the Essenes (into which Ezekiel’s father initiates him) and through its portrayal of a disenchantment and political frustration that feel all too timely. In an effort to delve further into the relation between writing and place in the novel, I exchanged a series of emails with John Fanning over the last few weeks.

Amanda Dennis for Guernica

Guernica: How long after founding La Muse did the idea for Ezekiel come to you? Do you see a relationship between the place in which you’re living and the subject of the novel?

John Fanning: We’d just found out we were having our third child. I decided, I’m going to focus on enjoying my little girl’s childhood, instead of writing into the night when retreat work, or before that, magazine work, was done. Then one day, sitting in a restaurant in Montpellier, I realized I’d never asked my close Provençal friend about her father. Five minutes later she was telling me how he had survived a concentration camp and how her uncles were resistance fighters. When she finished I told her someone had to write a book about her father’s life. She said, “You should write it.” “But it’s a memoir, or an historical book. I write novels.” “So, write it as a novel.” I got home from Montpellier. Stéphane Hessel’s Time for Outrage was waiting for me in the letterbox. I’d ordered it months before and forgotten about it. Hessel’s book, his life story, his resistance fighting, his work with Eleanor Roosevelt after the war to craft The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, made the experience with my friend feel like synchronicity. I knew I had to write a story from this perspective, one of defiance to totalitarianism, the capitalistic death economy, spiritual abnegation. Here were characters outraged enough to tell it, handed to me.

Guernica: What about the resistance history of the region? Did that have an effect on your way of telling this particular story?

John Fanning: I grew up in the south of Ireland. Politics, for most of us, was muted. Nobody ever talked about the Rising, the War of Independence, the North. Yet, as a teenager, after helping bring in hay for a local octogenarian farmer, we went into his old house. Over his fireplace was an immense portrait of Michael Collins in full military uniform. In the bottom corner were the words, “To the lads, Michael.” It meant nothing to me at the time. Bombs in bins, children blown up, this wasn’t the Ireland I grew up in. You didn’t talk about the IRA. Mainly because you knew nothing, but also because the Troubles were up North. So, not only was I apolitical to start with, but France during WWII was about as close to my reality as Mars.

My wonderful old French friend made me realize the history of this region was all around me. History is always right in front us, if we’re willing to question. I started asking questions. Not everyone wanted to answer them. I discovered how neighbors were collaborators. I found out how at the end of the war there were reglement des comptes – collaborators machine-gunned to death, next door. Communist partisan leaders too, who’d become too powerful for DeGaullist centrists. Or how one of the local paysans had to wait with a cart full of guns and provisions hidden under a pile of straw –for the Maquis hiding in the mountains – while the Germans repaired a broken down truck full of soldiers, right outside. How the Germans killed all the resistance fighters, while they were celebrating Liberation in a cave. The war was over, but not for the Nazis.

So many stories never made it into the novel, but they really inspired me to write it. Then there’s the Cathar story. Their resistance. Incredible resistance to what became a different genocide, sanctioned by the Catholic Church. Only this year, I found out my great-grandmother, a midwife, a couple of days after giving birth, walked to Dublin, nearly 20 miles. She left my 12-year-old grandfather to take care of his newborn brother, while she bandaged fighters, fallen in the Rising. These untold stories inspire me. Ezekiel’s story, of resistance to power, comes out of this.

Guernica: The lush descriptions of the Provençal landscape—the fig and pear trees growing around the family’s stone farmhouse—is particularly striking feature of the book. Did the physicality of the landscape—or your closeness to it—have an effect on your writing?

John Fanning: Provence and the Montagne Noire are very beautiful places, but also quite niggardly. They have this hidden beauty. It’s not the physical beauty that inspires me. It’s what lies underneath. The cover of Ezekiel is a photo of an embroidered cloth given to me by my friend, whose father inspired the novel. It’s a red Camargue cross, deeply symbolic of many things – charity, the gardian’s pole, the anchor of the sea – of three Marys who landed in Ste. Marie de la Mers after the Crucifixion. In the region, they say the Magdalene was the inspiration for the Cathars, that she passed on the Essene tradition to the Cathars. Over the centuries it watered down, but that gnostic sense still lives on. In the churches of the south you’ll see more women saints and Marys than you see Christs on crosses. There’s a reason for this. To answer your question, it’s more the inner landscape that I love about this place. To be honest, I write people first, next, where they go, and finally color in the backdrop, the setting. But this doesn’t mean I think this landscape unimportant. The absolute opposite, its beauty speaks for itself.

Guernica: The name of your protagonist—Ezekiel Yusuf Moran—combines elements of Judaism, Sufism and Catholicism. How does this religious pluralism—which seems anachronistic for the time—fit into your thinking about writing and political resistance?

John Fanning: If we read The Gospel of Thomas we have verses like ones in the Quran and a language, a tone more akin to the Bhagavad Gita. It only seems anachronistic because his-story is written by the male victors. Peter’s church is the Christian church we have today. But where are the female gospels of that church? Why has Mary Magdalene no gospel? What about Jesus’ mother? Does she not have her story? No. Not in The Bible. There are thirty-five authors, four of them unknown, and all of them are men.

So, of course it’s anachronistic, this pluralism, but it doesn’t mean it is any less real than the patriarchal story we’ve been sold. About a third of the planet is Christian. What about the other two thirds? A vast number of people believes in reincarnation. Plato and many of the ancients were of the same mind. But the modern scientific mind sees this as silly, New Age-y. Ezekiel, even though he was born in the Christian third of the planet, goes on a journey searching for what the other two thirds of the planet “see.” Ezekiel resists the official story.

Guernica: It’s been said that because literary fiction has turned away from religious questions, it has also turned away from the larger metaphysical questions that fiction should be asking, like, why are we here, how should we live, what is our place in the larger picture? One of the most memorable passages in Ezekiel is the interlude when Ezekiel apprentices himself to Tara, a sage in The Valley of the Flowers. Is spiritualism related to the political for you? Or are they opposed?

John Fanning: This is a good question, one that is not asked enough. Ezekiel evolved, like its main character, resisting traditional storytelling. Questioning is political. As soon as we ask people questions, they become uncomfortable, and because spirituality is a questioning, again and again, it seems to make people even more uncomfortable. What’s right, wrong, just, are spiritual questions, but also political ones. Why do people go quiet when we use the word spirit, or spirituality? Why do they walk away, end a conversation, get heated? The uncanny, strange, different, synchronistic, troubles people. Perhaps it’s what the bird says in Eliot’s Four Quartets: “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.” If you point to the flaws of a worldview, humankind automatically reacts, out of fear. You are threatening their worldview. Ezekiel has grown up with many worldviews: Sufi mysticism with Yusuf, the Kabbalistic Essene tradition of his Irish father, and the fundamentalist Catholicism of his mother. He is many spiritual traditions, and none of them completely, but all of them too.

Ezekiel and Tara reject this idea that literary fiction needs to be naturalism, magic realism, or even some mix of both. Writers like Beckett and Joyce used stream of consciousness naturalism, but they shy away from spiritual realism. Not Shakespeare. You have ghosts shaking their gory locks at Macbeth. Then there are the witches and all the other spiritual characters. Shakespeare presents us with the world, not parts of it, as with naturalism. This does not mean naturalistic fiction is not beautiful; it’s just important to see things clearly. Tolstoy, especially in stories like the Three Hermits, tries to show us this other world too. The spiritual realism that Tolstoy and Shakespeare manifested shouldn’t be confused with Marquez’s wonderful stories. Magic realism presents physical manifestations in the present moment of spiritual worlds. But where Tolstoy shows monks doing extraordinary things, Ezekiel resists the extra-ordinary, instead representing spiritual reality in the ordinary. There’s a Nigerian novelist, Ben Okri, who talks of this reality too, as if it’s the most ordinary thing in the world, because in Nigeria, it is. Just because it isn’t ordinary here doesn’t mean it is any less real. He describes having a conversation with a friend and a relation, only the relation is dead. In Nigeria, this is not extraordinary, only to those outside that worldview.

Ezekiel and Tara would advocate a novel where spiritual realism lives. Spirit, or spirituality has become this dirty word, derogatory, unscientific, somehow connected to charlatans. We have over-intellectualized reality, turning the majority into what Ionesco called “demi-intellectuals.” Tara would see Ionesco’s world as feeling about in the dark for meaning in a naturalistic world, which of course becomes an existential nightmare, the Absurd. And yes, there are many New Age charlatans, but there are also many charlatans in science too, scientism. Just because you or I don’t see something, other forms, to use Platonic terminology, or ghosts, entities, whatever you want to name them, doesn’t meant they don’t exist. For example, there’s a whole philosophy of life in Brazil called Spiritism, which most people in the West know nothing about. The film Nosso Lar and Chico Xavier are very famous there, but even here in France, Spiritism’s founder, French educator Allan Kardec, is unknown.

I wouldn’t say politics and spirituality are opposed or related, and it’s only when people have beliefs created by other people – dogmas – that spiritual realism gets politicized.

Guernica: In some ways this book feels like it comes out of a personal experience of a softer sort of resistance—the act of creating a retreat, which you’ve run now for almost 20 years. You and your wife left good jobs and ambitious writing careers in New York City for a very different sort of life. What has this distance from—say the literary world of New York City—brought you?

John Fanning: Humility, I hope. The humility of learning everything from scratch, from electricity to building websites, walls, business plans, a self. To learn what it’s like to nearly lose everything, multiple times. We bought the manor house in 2001 using five credit cards for the down payment and barely survived the first ten years. It took us a long time to move here permanently (which we did with our twin 2-year-olds), and then the economic crisis hit in 2009. It’s a very humbling thing to come from working for Conde Nast to not having enough money to buy food for your family, and then to have the locals bring you food from their gardens. Things like the literary world of New York City disappear pretty quickly after that. I could care less what I wear, how I look. When you’re hungry or cold because you’ve got no heating, outside influences, artifice, simply evaporates.

The perspective of living in a different culture also changes you. The culture of this country is extraordinary. It has its flaws like any country, but values the rights of man: a thirty-five-hour work week, health care for all, Laïcité. It shines a huge light on a lot of things wrong with the places where I was born or where I’ve lived, London, America. You see things in a very different light.

Not only did we move countries. We moved from an urban to rural setting. There’s nothing commercial in our village. Not a single shop or billboard. Nobody calls trying to sell you something. People aren’t chasing a dream, pursuing happiness. They’re already happy just to be. They don’t see the pursuit of happiness as a right. They would see that as ridiculous, literally. Because it’s actually counter to life and liberty. How can you be free to be, like the octogenarians here, if you are always pursuing happiness? That’s a very problematic declaration. Everyone is pursuing happiness under capitalism, the better job, clothes, apartment, car, but there weren’t many people who actually seemed happy, really happy, in New York. I would’ve never written Ezekiel if I hadn’t moved away and dropped out.

Dropping out became more like dropping in, but it took time. We loved New York, but when you can’t afford to buy a place or live well, on good salaries, and have no time to see your life partner and almost know your colleagues better than your spouse, then why stay? It’s the same in most cities, this pursuit of happiness. Ask any editorial assistant in publishing, any actor waiting tables, is it easy to survive and create in New York? Why stay? For the museums you never have the time to visit? For the parties? So, yes, it is a form of resistance. I resist any idea that says you have to be one way or another. I don’t have to live in New York to write novels, to be me. In fact, NYC is probably one of the worst places to write. We have countless New Yorkers who come here, to the middle of nowhere, to find inspiration.

So, to answer the last bit of your question: I suppose it’s brought acceptance, and patience. Acceptance that everything is fine, just like this, on this mountain, enjoying what we created. It doesn’t mean we’re sitting around quaffing fine wine and meditating like Buddhas. This place is a postcard, but to really live inside a postcard you have to still be able to enjoy where you are right now. To accept. New York is a postcard place too. It was great in our twenties. Fun. But when you have kids, and when you need to write books, well, we choose to settle here away from the noise.

Guernica: You see a good number of struggling and successful artists who come to break away from their routine and access something that allows them to focus on whatever projects they bring. What have you learned from talking to so many artists at different stages of their careers? Have these conversations informed your own sense of what it takes to make art now, in 2018?

John Fanning: Yes, they have informed me. One side would be practical. I used to have this idea that you found an agent, then a house or editor and then got published, retiring back to your room to write your next opus. I had two amazing agents for two previous novels, but I probably wouldn’t do it now. There is a new paradigm shift for creatives, an awareness of a business model, a need for the walls to come down and for the writer to go out in the world to let people know about their work. There are many positive opportunities, but as with spirituality, there is a politics in place. In the main, the literary establishment is not supportive. They like to use words like self publishing to denigrate independent creativity. I’ve witnessed it countless times over the years and have talked to independent publishers, writers and editors about this. A publisher in New York City once told me, “Yes, writers are poor, but they’re happy.” The agency model still functions, but it’s dying. So, self-agency is big. Doing it yourself, not relying so much on others. Writers have to wake up as artists.

There’s something more important though, in making art – the spiritual side of creativity, that all creativity is a form of healing. This was something I was oblivious to before coming here. I’ve learned this from our people and this space. Creatives are the ones who have this spiritual sensibility to create the most wonderful work. They don’t have to be overt about their spirituality. It’s a presence. They bring a centeredness to what they create. It’s very beautiful to observe how it’s translated into their work and process. There’s a lot more to this, but the depth of presence brings something very important to art and the artist, what Frost wrote about in The Figure a Poem Makes: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

Amanda Dennis

Amanda Dennis is a writer and visiting professor at The American University of Paris. Her writing has appeared in the Journal of Modern Literature, the Journal of Beckett Studies, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and she is prose editor of the literary journal Paris Lit Up. She holds a PhD from Berkeley and an MPhil in European Literature and Culture from Cambridge. She also has an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is working on her first novel.

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One Comment on “John Fanning: Questioning is Political

  1. Terrific article by Amanda Dennis (and of course, her interviewee, John Fanning, the author of Ezekiel). I’ve visited La Muse, the Writers Retreat of which John is director, and always found there the creative comfort and inspiration I was seeking. An Australian writer, I’ve completed and subsequently had published three books of fiction first drafted in that physically and psychically special place. Amanda’s conversation with John (what incisive questions she asks!) elicits so much of the historical and spiritual ‘thickness’ and splendor of a place which not simply hosts the creative impulses within each of us but demands them.
    John Clanchy

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