COVER

CELESTINE PROPHET

James Redfield’s spiritual thriller is this year’s most unlikely best-seller

MARCI McDONALD October 10 1994
COVER

CELESTINE PROPHET

James Redfield’s spiritual thriller is this year’s most unlikely best-seller

MARCI McDONALD October 10 1994

CELESTINE PROPHET

James Redfield’s spiritual thriller is this year’s most unlikely best-seller

A mysterious force has blocked the phone lines for half an hour, stalling a scheduled long-distance interview. But when James Redfield finally answers at his beach house near Destin on Florida’s Gulf coast, he is philosophical. “I guess it needed to be delayed,” he says in his careful Alabama drawl. For the author of The Celestine Prophecy, the spiritual thriller that has been ensconced at the top of The New York Times best-seller list since last spring, there are no accidents or coincidences—least of all the fact that his first attempt at fiction has become this year’s most unlikely publishing phenomenon. “We felt it would really appeal to people who had been on a spiritual search,” he says. “But the surprising thing is that so many people are interested in matters of the soul. That is the shift that’s going on.”

An accumulation of coincidences is in fact the first clue that something is up in Redfield’s mystical whodunit about an ancient Peruvian manuscript chronicling nine insights into a new cosmic consciousness. The narrator— a frustrated former youth counsellor, like Redfield himself—sets off to Lima in pursuit of the rumored text. Along the way he is shot at by shadowy government agents, chased through the rain forest by the Peruvian army and thrown into jail by an autocratic cardinal who fears the insights will undermine the Church’s authority. Despite that melodrama and one chaste kiss, the “adventure,” as Redfield terms it, reads more like a how-to manual for attaining self-fulfilment and a kind of eco-spiritual rapture. Written largely in a Birmingham Waffle House

restaurant, where he could keep his prospective audience in mind, the book, in fact, started out as a nonfiction stew of New Age lore and psychotherapy. Critics have lambasted the prose as leaden and the message as “sound-bite spirituality.” But the Prophecy s success provides a convenient illustration of insight number 7: No matter what anybody says, heed your own dreams.

Certainly, from the first, Redfield’s manuscript seemed bedeviled by a distinct lack of good omens. After growing up amid the Methodist revival meetings of Alabama’s rural Shelby County and working with disturbed youth for 15 years, Redfield quit his job to write the book. “At least, I was trying to get it out on paper,” he says. “But I was kind of stuck.” Then, he went to Sedona, north of Flagstaff, Ariz., where New Age pilgrims flock to the four “energy vortexes,” or power spots, among its stark sienna outcroppings. Redfield likes to recount how he sprained his ankle during a temper tantrum over his hotel accommodations, only to have it healed at the airport vortex. Two days later, a crow guided him to a personal power spot—and a personal epiphany. “A lot of very mystical things happened to me in Sedona,” he says.

“But it’s important for people to know there are power spots in every country—especially in Canada.”

Still, three publishers flatly rejected his manuscript and even well-wishers hedged their enthusiasm. Marilyn McGuire, a former Birmingham bank official who now heads the New Age Publishers and Retailers Association, admits that she diplomatically “offered to get one of my editors to rewrite it, but bless his heart, James stuck to his guns.” Two years ago, Redfield set up Satori Publishing, named after a Zen term for instant enlightenment, and sank his life savings of $18,000 into printing 3,000 copies. Then, he and his second wife, Salle Merrill, drove across the south and west, peddling the paperback to New Age bookstores out of the trunk of their Honda. He had already sold more than 100,000 copies by the time Warner Books heard about the selfpublished hit last November and offered Redfield $1 million for the rights. In the seven months since the hard-cover hit mainstream markets, Warner has sold 1.5 million more, with a movie deal on the horizon.

Even Redfield confesses that his success has been "awing." But at 44, the father of two finds himself a reluc lant prophet of the new spiritual re naissance. "I don't want to be a sym bol for what's going on," he says. "What we're talking about is an indi vidual approach to spirituality." He has largely ducked the talk-show cir cuit for seclusion aboard his 18-foot Hobie Cat skimming the Florida waves. And behind the "No Tres passing" sign on the gate to his Birm ingham country house, he still rises at

6 a.m. to meditate and practise a private version of t'ai chi before set tling down to write his sequel, The Tenth Insight, due out next year. "There's probably going to be a total of 12 insights before every thing's over," he says.

Ironically, Redfield hints that his stubborn faith in his literary mission may have helped provoke the breakup of his first marriage. But two years ago, with the manuscript almost finished, he sauntered into a Unity Church in Birmingham, where Merrill, a former massage therapist, happened to be visiting her mother. Despite The Celestine Prophecy's warnings not to rush into romance, they were married within a year. Explains Redfield: “Bells and whistles definitely went off.” Now, Merrill is launching a tape of the Celestine Meditations she leads during his speeches, and they have set up a foundation to tithe 10 per cent of their newfound wealth to charity. Says Redfield in a helpful hint to readers: “Giving away money is a very important ingredient in making your dreams come true.”

MARCI McDONALD