An interview with Eileen Kernaghan by Mary E. Choo

mec: Your work as a whole covers a wide geography and explores a variety of mythological, legendary and cultural backgrounds. Why did you decide to set this novel in Bhutan?

ek: While I was editing an interview with the Dalai Lama for a non-fiction book on reincarnation (Walking after Midnight), I became interested in the northern (Tibetan) form of Buddhism, and did some further research. As a setting for a fantasy novel, it appealed to me on several levels. Tibetan culture is intensely rich and intensely visual, and I'm the kind of writer who enjoys reading, and writing, that kind of rich visual imagery. The Himalayas are a fascinating setting for a fantasy story -- because of their innate mystery, and because in northern Buddhist culture, magic is not a thing apart, but an intrinsic, everyday part of life, And because Tibetan Buddhism is rooted in Bon shamanism -- the original animist religion of Tibet -- it allowed me to explore a particular interest in shamanist religious experience.

Why Bhutan? I knew my story was to be set in one of the Himalayan kingdoms, and I wanted a country where northern Buddhism, and Buddhist culture, has been preserved to the present day. Nepal has been overrun by tourists; Tibet itself has had its culture systematically destroyed. Sikkim? Ladakh? Then a friend who had just been to a performance of the touring Royal Bhutanese Dance Troupe and the Asia Pacific Festival, came up with the anser. "Write about Bhutan," she said.

I knew absolutely nothing about Bhutan. But I went to the library and found a number of fascinating books by the handful of independent travellers who have been allowed into the country. (Bhutan has preserved its culture in an almost pure form by restricting tourism -- you can only travel in the country as part of a tour group, or at the personal invitation of the royal family.) Though western civilization is encroaching, l life in Bhutan today is still not all that different from life in Bhutan in the 18th century. And because so few westerners have explored it, it has kept its sense of magic and mystery.

mec: You must have done considerable research into the background of Bhutan, its people, culture and religions. What sources did you explore, and which, if any, did you find particularly helpful?

ek: My primary sources on Tibetan Buddhism included:

-- Madame Alexandra David Neel's books on her travels and studies in Tibet (My Journey to Lhasa; Magic and Mystery in Tibet; Initiations and Initiates in Tibet)

-- W. Y. Evans-Wentz's translations of Tibetan Buddhist sacred texts (The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, etc.)

-- Tibetan Buddhismby L. Austine Waddell

-- Dakini Teachings in the Shambhala translation, by Erik Pema Kunsang.

-- published interviews with the Dalai Lama on the meaning of the Kalachakra Initiation, plus an eyewitness account of the Kalachakra ceremony from my daughter, who attended when it was held in the Indian Himalayas. (Kalachakra refers to the sacred teachings which are said to have been received from Shambhala.)

-- in particular, The Way to Shambhala, by Edwin Bernbaum. (Bernbaum's summaries of the various "guidebooks" to Shambhala formed the framework for the second half of the book.)

For landscape, customs and culture of Bhutan:-- videos on Bhutan and Himalayas; various guidebooks to Bhutan; a number of books by travellers in Bhutan, including Katie Hickman's Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon; photos and videos of Bhutanese Dancers;, travel brochures and magazines from the Bhutanese government. I also attended a Vancouver Institute lecture by a woman doctor who had lived in Bhutan while working for the Bhutanese government; heard the monks of the Drepung Monastery on tour at SFU; and checked out my descriptions of the Himalayan landscape with my daughter, who had just returned from five months wandering through the Indian Himalayas and Nepal ...

mec: You've been writing for some time, and this is in fact your fourth published novel. Themes of spiritual quest and enlightenment run throughout much of your work, and this novel is no exception. What part did such themes play in the genesis of The Dance of the Snow Dragon?

ek: I suppose you could say that all of my books arise out of my own quest for answers -- my search for a set of beliefs that I find meaningful. I'm not a practicing Buddhist, but it's one of the philosophies to which I'm particularly attracted. And of course the Shambhala legend is an archetypal spiritual quest -- a physical journey which is also a metaphor for the inward, pschological/emotional/spiritual journey towards enlightenment.

mec: You obviously found the Bhutanese dance, with its colour and drama and deep roots in religious tradition of particular appeal. Why did you choose to write about the dance, and about the struggles of a young boy as he explores its possibilities?

ek: The Bhutanese dancers were really the starting point of the novel -- the rest of the plot evolved from that. The religious dances are of course the aspect of the Bhutanese culture best known to the western world -- and they are rooted in the older animist Bon faith which still permeates Tibetan Buddhist tradtions. The more I read about the dances, the more they became central to the book (eg. dances based on the patterns of mandalas -- somewhere in my reading I came across that piece of information, and it fit perfectly. And of course it all comes together at the end of the book as the Cosmic Dance. As for Sangay's ineptitude in learning to dance -- that's autobiographcal. I saw the movie The Red Shoes and wanted to be Moira Shearer -- but my high school phys ed teacher told me I danced like a sack of potatoes -- and my one attempt at ballroom dancing lessons ended in tears.

mec: The Buddhist themes which dominate this novel require skilful handling. Did they present you with any challenge with regard to plot and characterization, and if so, how did you resolve these problems?

ek: In terms of plot, how do you maintain suspense, a sense of danger, how do you make the monsters and demons truly terrifying, when your characters themselves understand that all things in the material world are illusory -- that what they are seeing are the inventions of their own minds? I think -- I hope -- that I've managed it. Illusions, when they seem real enough, are still dangerous, in both the physical and the psychological sense. And the struggle to overcome demons is no less challenging because the demons live inside us. In terms of characterization, the training of a Buddhist monk encourages obedience, acceptance, rather than heroic individual action. And yet the protagonist of a fantasy novel must be heroic -- must meet and over come challenges. So my struggle was to make my main character faithful to the tenets of the Buddhist faith, yet capable of strong independent action in the face of danger and adversity. And so I gave my young hero Sangay as role-models the warrior-monks of earlier times who bore arms in defense of their country; and as mentor, the fiercely independent-minded Bon sorceress Jatsang.

mec: What do you feel are some of the more enduring qualtities of the characters in this novel, and to what extent do you feel they are derived from the background?

ek: The journey to Shambhala is a Himalayan Pilgrim's Progress, with Sangay as Christian. He gets tired and discouraged, and complains a lot, but he trudges on with dogged determination, and in the end he achieves his goal. So one of the qualities I like in Sangay is his determination. The other is his humility. He never see himself as a hero. And when other people see him in that role, he is simply bewildered and unbelieving. As for Jatsang, she's the Wild Woman we'd all like to be, if only we had the nerve -- assertive, uninhibited, and supremely self-confident.

mec: This novel showcases your talent for realizing situations in historical settings without seeming to intrude on your narrative. This involves a skilful use of detail that many would find daunting. When you set a story in a place such as historic Bhutan, what factors are the most important to you? What standards do you observe in developing the story?

ek: When I'm using a real historic setting, authenticity of deatil is very important to me, but there's also the question of striking a balance between plot and setting. It's tempting to include everything you know about a time and place, because you've done all that research -- but then there's a danger of the story getting bogged down in descriptive detail. In a story like Snow Dragon, I used a lot of visual detail, because I was writing about an intensely visual culture, full of vivid colour and shape and texture -- and, of course, the beauty and harshness of the landscape itself is integral to the plot. I hope I've achieved a balance -- though my editor had to remind me a few times "Don't let the researcher take over from the storyteller!"

mec: There is a fluid, seamless quality to your prose that obviously contributes to the illusory air, not only in this novel but in much of your other work. Does anything in particular, such as music, influence or inspire you during the actual writing of a novel, and how does that apply to this novel?

ek: On occasion I've used music to create a particular atmosphere in which to write -- but to be honest, more often my writing is influenced by whatever music happens to be playing at the time. (In my first novel, Journey to Aprilioth, the battle scenes were written while my then teen-aged son was playing "Riders on the Storm" at top decibels in the basement.) However, when I was writing the monastery scenes in Snow Dragon, I did play tapes of Tibetan tantric chants. I also have a mandala, the Wheel of Life, hanging over my desk, and I spent a lot of time gazing at it. And I've taken a course in meditation, to try to understand my characters better. But as far as style is concerned, I rely on my inner ear.

mec: However hard a writer tries, his work always reflects something of his views, however subtly. Do you feel that Snow Dragon incorporates anything of particular importance to you?

ek: I'm reminded of a banner over a local storefront Buddhist temple: "ENDEAVOUR TO DO GOOD." That's important to me -- and in its moderate, common sense message sums up a lot of what appeals to me in the Buddhist philosophy.There is a political message in Snow Dragon -- it's an inextricable part of the legend of Shambhala, besieged by barbarian armies. What I've added, or made more explicit, is the desperate hope of Shambhala's king for help from the outside world. I suppose, in the chapters on the Wasteland, there's an ecological message as well. What has happened to Shambhala -- the destruction of the landscape -- is happening throughout the Himalayas. But in an even larger sense, Snow Dragon is about the need to preserve what remains in the world of beauty, and wisdom -- and simple goodness.

mec: Your young protagonist, Sangay, goes through a good deal in the novel, endeavouring to find his purpose in life while at the same time observing the religious tenets which permeate his world. Without being heavy-handed, what do you think is the lesson he learns?

ek: I think Sangay learn several lessons. One of them is summed up in the question posed by the Sage of the Incense Mountains: "You have been taught. You understand. But do you believe?" Sangay has been taught from earliest childhood that all things are illusion, the inventions of his own mind. He understands the concept. But until he believes it, he cannot overcome the demons and monsters he will meet along the road. Nor, until he believes in the power of his own mind, can he achieve his ultimate goal. Another lesson I think is contained in Pema Lingpa's fourth dictum (Ch 30) "The dancer cannot see the pattern of the dance." In other words, no experience really makes sense to us as long as we are inside it. Nor can we control events while we are too closely involved with them. Somehow we have to achieve detachment, objectivity, balance -- must learn to stand outside the problem.

mec: The lung gompa Jatsang plays such an important part in the story. Where did you conceive such a wonderful, outrageous character, and how does she derive from religious/cultural themes in the book?

ek: Jatsang is modelled, in part, on the amazing nineteenth century Himalayan traveller Madame Alexandra David Neel, who lived for some time as a hermit, and underwent lung gompa training and initiation. In part she is the female counterpart of Bon sorcerers that Madam David Neel met on her travels. She's also -- as I mentioned earlier -- the wild woman we'd all like to be. Towards the end of the book another, more mysterious aspect of Jatsang is hinted at. Is she in face a Dakini (cloud spirit) in disguise? Is she the green-eyed anima figure that pilgrims to Shambhala meet along the way?

mec: After you had done some initial research, you must have realized what was involved in tackling such a complex, remote setting. Did you approach your story with trepidation, and how did you feel when you had finished the book?

ek: I didn't exactly approach the story with trepidation, because when I'm starting a book I tend to launch into the first chapter or so, dropping my main character into a setting and situation -- and then get down to the serious research. When I'd done some further reading and realized the immense complexity of Tibetan Buddhism, then I was daunted. All the way through the book, I felt as though I were juggling about a thousand balls in the air. And I kept doing more and more research, and getting more and more worried. When I finally finished the book, it was with a great sense of relief. I felt, finally, that all the pieces fit together -- which is a really exhilarating sensation.

mec: What are your particular hopes for this novel?

ek: Naturally, I hope that lots of people will read it -- adults as well as younger readers. I hop they'll enjoy the story, and the characters. And if it should inspire an interest in Buddhism, and in Bhutan -- and in other ways of looking at the world -- that would be nice too. Someone said, "This could be a very helpful book for young people". I hadn't thought of it in those terms -- when I started out, I just wanted to tell an interesting story, and explore a part of the world I knew little about. But if anyone finds it helpful, that's just great with me.

mec: Now that you have gone to the trouble researching this world and creating some memorable characters, do you have plans to take the situation further, perhaps write another novel?

ek: I've already written another Jatsang story, this time with and adult audience in mind, that goes more deeply into Bon Shamanism. It appeared in a small press U. S. anthology called Magic, edited by David Kopaska-Merkel,and then Terri Windling bought it for The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. As for another book -- Jatsang and Sangay are obviously going to have more adventures after the Snow Dragon, and I'd like to share in them. I'd also like to learn more about the Tibetan epic folk-hero Gesar -- perhaps there's a book in that as well.