Interview with Roland Merullo by Chris Beal

Roland Merullo (Rolandmerullo.com) is the author of sixteen books, two of which are particularly of interest to readers of Buddhist Fiction. BREAKFAST WITH BUDDHA (Algonquin, 2008)), previously reviewed here (http://buddhistfictionblog.wordpress.com/tag/spiritual-travelogue/), is currently in its fifteenth printing and has been translated into Korean and Croatian. Merullo’s latest, LUNCH WITH BUDDHA (AJAR Contemporaries, 2012), is a sequel to BREAKFAST, and picks up on middle-aged, upper-middle-class food book editor Otto Ringling’s sometimes reluctant journey into spirituality and his relationship with the Buddhist teacher Volya Rinpoche, who has now become his brother-in-law. (Note that it is not necessary to read BREAKFAST in order to enjoy LUNCH although doing so may result in a richer experience.)

Chris Beal:  For those who haven’t read it, could you describe LUNCH WITH BUDDHA in a nutshell?

Roland Merullo: It is, like BREAKFAST, another road-trip book, a look at America, at spirituality, at food and landscape and the interior life.  It begins with the whole family together in Seattle, and then, after an event I don’t want to describe here, Otto and Rinpoche head east in an old pickup truck and make their way across Washington State, Idaho, Montana and a bit of Wyoming, having various adventures along the way, talking, eating, meeting characters.

For those who haven’t read BREAKFAST, that book is a New Jersey-to-North Dakota road trip taken by the same characters. LUNCH is the next stage on that evolution, with Rinpoche bringing Otto deeper into the interior life, and Otto showing Rinpoche more and more of the American landscape and culture.

CB:  I find Rinpoche, with his eccentric mix of human foibles and profundity, to be an extremely engaging character.  He’s also the source of most of the humor in this tale as well as in its predecessor.  How did you come up with the idea for him?  Did you know someone like this or is he purely a work of imagination?

RM:  He’s a mixture of spiritual teachers I have seen, taken retreats with, and imagined.  There’s a little of the Dalai Lama in him, a little of the Tibetan master, Sogyal Rinpoche, a bit of the late Zen master Soehn Sahn.  I went on brief retreats with the latter two, and found them to be very funny, engaging, impressive men.  But in Rinpoche I take that to another level, and have him do things that those teachers might not do.  In part, the book grew out of a magazine piece I read probably thirty years ago, the account of the Dalai Lama’s first trip to America.  One of his hosts was aghast that people had arranged for him to go to Disneyland, but the Dalai Lama enjoyed himself, went with the flow, with good humor, kindness, without judgment.  I wasn’t even interested in Buddhism then, but it impressed me so much to have a great spiritual leader with that kind of sense of humor about things.

CB:  How did you learn about the obscure branch of Siberian Tibetan Buddhism to which the Rinpoche belongs?  Did you choose it because it attracted you in some way or just because its obscurity gave you some freedom to play with the doctrine a bit?

RM:  It’s made up.  I know a bit about Tibetan Buddhism, Dzogchen especially, but I’m the last thing from a scholar.  I used my intuitive understanding of those teachings, but I chose this made up lineage because I did not want to be limited to the factual teachings of any one group.  One thing I love about Buddhist teachers is how they incorporate and respect the teachings of other faiths.  They will mention Christ, for example, though very few Christian teachers mention Buddha with the same respect.

CB:  But I researched whether there was a branch of Tibetan Buddhism in Siberia, and it turned out to exist. This is an amazing coincidence.  But if you didn’t know about it, of course it was made up for purposes of the novel.

RM:  I should have been more clear about that.  I did work in the USSR for almost three years between 1977 and 1990, and did once take the Trans-Siberian railroad, which passes through a place called Skovorodino.  And I did know that there were some Buddhist enclaves.  So that was in my thoughts when I was writing and having Rinpoche come from Russia.  But [the lineage] Ortyk is made up….unless by some weird coincidence it is also real.  

CB:  One purpose of the book seems to be to encourage people ask themselves questions about what is really important in their lives. Could you say something about the role of humor in accomplishing this purpose?

RM:  Religion is a tricky subject.  It’s especially tricky for someone like me, who has zero credentials.  I’m not a preachy type, in real life, and do not want to go anywhere near preaching to or trying to convert my readers. Humor helps with that.  The big questions are so big, and they can be so serious, literally matters of life and death and afterlife, that, I think, if you don’t approach them with humor the results can be awful.  I am trying to “provoke” people to consider things, but I’m not pushing anyone anywhere beyond that, and if the characters and story don’t work, then the ideas will fall flat.

CB:  The book suggests that communicating with the dead is possible. Have you yourself had any experiences in contacting the dead?  Can you talk a little about how you see this kind of communication?

RM:  No, I haven’t, but I do have friends who feel they have had some communication with lost loved ones.  And it is just very hard for me to believe that we form these deep attachments to certain people in this life, and then they end forever when one or both die.  Part of what I am trying to do in Breakfast and LUNCH (and now DINNER, which I am writing), is to counter what I see as the excessively materialistic views held by most of us in American/Western society.  I don’t mean materialistic in the usual sense–wanting things–but in the sense of believing only in the material, the measurable, the tangible.  It seems obvious to me that there is more going on, and while that other dimension of things can be the territory of the flaky and false, I think there is truth to it.  I think there is some connection that death doesn’t sever, and I wanted Otto to feel that in this book.

CB:  Certain plot elements are never developed in LUNCH:  the possibility of harm coming to Shelsa, the possibility that she is an incarnate Buddha, the menace posed by the hate groups.  Did you intend to set up these plot elements for further development in DINNER?

RM:  I don’t plan much, don’t outline, just write by the seat of my pants, by intuition, trying to have fun as I go.  But in DINNER, I am wrestling with some of those elements, how much to pursue or abandon them. It’s tricky business because the heart of these books is the spiritual evolution of Otto, and I don’t want to turn them into thrillers.  At the same time, I like to introduce something new in each book so I am not just playing the same song over and over again.

CB:  To what extent are Rinpoche’s views on spirituality your own?  Are there any ways in which they are not your own? If the answer is yes to the latter question, why did you decide to give him views that differ from yours?

RM:  They are mostly my own.  He is wiser and deeper than I am, and he lacks some of my flaws and troubles.  I have tried to put some of me into Otto for that reason, though Otto is very different than I am in many respects.  When Rinpoche says something in his teachings, those are things I have thought and wondered about myself, or read or heard from great masters. I try to be careful with that material, try not to simply mimic what I’ve heard, but also try not to have him say something that will be misleading to true spiritual seekers.  It’s a fine line sometimes.  I feel a responsibility to the truth, as I perceive it, especially in spiritual matters.  And while I joke about it in the book, at the same time, I take seriously what I have him say.  If it doesn’t work in my own life, or if it feels “off” somehow, then I won’t have him say it.

CB:  I believe I read that you meditate.  Is it a particular type of practice?  Are you affiliated with any particular spiritual group?

RM:  No.  No specific group.  It’s a hybrid meditation that grew out of a Catholic upbringing, some Buddhist reading and retreats.  It’s been an almost daily practice for 30 some years.  I start with a Hail Mary and an Our Father, sometimes do a little tonglen, the Tibetan giving-and-taking meditation, then try just to rest as quietly as I can.  I like Dzogchen because it seems simple, without a lot of visualizations and tricks.  I just watch the thoughts and try to return to some word, idea, or image, and occasionally have moments of calm.  In general, it has helped me tremendously.  Not that I have any great visions–I don’t–but it has helped me with anger and depression and other tough parts of life that I experienced more when I was younger.  Still a long long ways to go to get free of all the negative emotions, but it has helped me so much.

I’ve had a lot of physical challenges in my life–broken back, back surgery, back spasms, psoriatic arthritis, shingles, etc. etc. etc.  And meditation is so helpful with those kinds of things.  My wife and I were married 18 years without having children and I made retreats then.  Since the children have come into our lives, I try to stay home, but when they are grown I will certainly do more retreats. I’ve done Catholic, Christian, Buddhist (Tibetan, Zen), Protestant, non-denominational. It all feels about the same to me–an unplugging from the usual run of worries and thoughts.

CB:  Do you feel you have developed spiritually in the years since you wrote BREAKFAST?  If so, how was that development reflected in LUNCH?

RM:  I think we always develop.  Bringing up children, being married for a long time, suffering, traveling, meditating, writing, dealing with the ups and downs of life–all those things have contributed to my own spiritual evolution.  I think that happens for every single soul on this planet.  But I think if you pay attention to that, if you meditate, for example, or have some other practice, then the effect, the benefit of those experiences, spiritually, is heightened.  In LUNCH I wanted to touch upon what happens to a person who loses a loved one.  I have friends in that situation.  What happens spiritually?  What are the challenges?  How does one experience and deal with grief?   The trick was to have all that in a book with humor in it.  But I do see, even in friends who have lost spouses, that humor eventually resurfaces.  One never forgets, the pain is not erased, but I do think humor and hope resurface after a time.

CB:  Is there anything else that you’d like readers or potential readers to know about LUNCH WITH BUDDHA or about the way you work as a writer?

RM:  I think it is an upbeat and hopeful book, despite a strain of real sadness. The way I work is to write about what I care about, what I’m thinking about.  I try to put something good into the world, to entertain, yes, but also to provoke–not in the sense of upsetting people, but in the sense of encouraging readers to think about something they might not have thought about, or to pursue something they have thought about from a different angle.  In a sense, my writing is extremely personal. I don’t write at arm’s length, in a scholarly or particularly cerebral way.  I want my books to be engaging, entertaining, thought-provoking, fun, carefully written, the kind of book you might read a second or third time.  I feel like I just tap into some source–I don’t mean this in any mystical or special way–and take that and put it on the page.

CB:  Well, you have certainly succeeded in doing this. Thank you so much for writing such thought-provoking and at the same time entertaining books.

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One response to “Interview with Roland Merullo by Chris Beal

  1. MARILYN HOLMAN

    I agree wholeheartedly with the CB: thought provoking and entertaining books. I loved every word of BREAKFAST and LUNCH, and am really looking forward to DINNER!