Bringing Compassion to the World: Fiction and Nonfiction Writer Perle Besserman

Zen Radicals

Zen Radicals, Rebels,
and Reformers

BY Perle Besserman
AND Manfred B. Steger
(Wisdom Publications, 2011)

A New Zen for Women
BY Perle Besserman
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

A New Kabbalah for Women

A New Kabbalah for Women
BY Perle Besserman
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)

Grassroots Zen

Grassroots Zen
BY Perle Besserman
AND Manfred Steger
(Tuttle Publishing, 2002 )

Looking back on those years now, I’m amazed at the energy I invested in this search. I was driven. I met amazing people: miracle workers, psychics, yogis, shamans, healers. It was while doing research on Renaissance Christian Kabbalists in the Bodlian Library at Oxford that I discovered the writings of Dr. John Dee, astrologer and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. Or, rather, Dr. Dee discovered me. From that day on it was as if I’d been occupied by this character, a vehicle, as Yeats might have put it, for his story. It was eerie. Not like my usual fictional characters, who are recognizable amalgams of “real” people and invented ones. John Dee wouldn’t leave me alone. Not for twenty years of monumental struggle… until, 2011, when I finally completed my novel The Infamous Dr. Dee.

This is intriguing. Please tell us about The Infamous Dr. Dee.

Well, in addition to being relieved that The Infamous Dr. Dee has been satisfactorily completed and is currently under consideration by two publishers, I should add that I wrote another novel during my struggle to write him out of my system. That novel, Kabuki Boy — which I consider my “jewel” — will be published by Aqueous Books in 2013. I had been working on this story of the life and times of a Kabuki actor in nineteenth-century Tokugawa Japan for about five years, publishing excerpts from it in various literary magazines along the way. Oddly enough, although the settings, characters, and narrative styles couldn’t be more different, Dr. Dee does somehow manage to make his way into Kabuki Boy — in the form of a Japanese physician-healer. It wasn’t until I finished Kabuki Boy that I found the strength to tackle Dr. Dee again. As if putting him aside and throwing myself into the tumultuous events of nineteenth-century Japan was exactly the fuel I needed to prime the creative engines again. The solution came quickly: take Dr. Dee out of sixteenth-century England and turn him from an astrologer into a “New Age” experimental psychology researcher at New York University! I let the characters take over from there and found, to my surprise, that I was writing a spy novel! Something completely foreign to me until then. I even got into researching military records for real-life models of scientific psychical researchers. A treasure trove opened up, allowing me to finally resolve the novel’s ending that had been eluding me for so long.

Sometimes we have to satisfy the itch for pleasure before we can explore a darker sense. Was this the case, would you say, with Kabuki Boy vis-a-vis The Infamous Dr. Dee? Did writing the former allow you to explore a world of dramatic pleasure, sensuality? Can you share more about Kabuki Boy?

Interestingly, Kabuki Boy, while a pleasure to write, explores many of the same dark themes as The Infamous Dr. Dee: self-deception, misplaced love, political and social violence, spiritual naiveté — and its abuse by predatory individuals and institutions. The difference lies mainly in the disposition of the characters, particularly the two protagonists, John Dee and Myo, the young Kabuki actor whose brief but illustrious career parallels the story of mid-nineteenth-century Tokugawa Japan, in all its glory and violence, as it reluctantly makes its way into the modern world. Drawn to my love of Japan by Zen, I have always basked in its culture and been repelled by its militant nationalism. And this double-edged fascination naturally found its way into the novel. You could say I wrote Myo “from the inside.” The life and times of John Dee, while intellectually compelling, never captured me in the same way. I was more of a passive “observer,” led by my characters. Which doesn’t mean I wasn’t passionate about Dr. Dee. It’s just that the writing experience wasn’t as visceral. The proof is, he hasn’t visited me since I completed his story. Whereas, Myo continues to live on.

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