BJH First of all, Dianne, I congratulate you on piecing together the story of the life of this fascinating woman. I appreciated your Author’s Note wherein you provide the rationale for the term “fictional biography” which to me, speaks to the care you’ve taken in recreating the “elusive” Alexandra. I believe that Alexandra David Neel would approve of you as her biographer and have no difficulty at all with your careful handling of “the invisible line between fiction and non-fiction.”
DH Thank you for your kind comments. Not so sure that Alexandra would approve. I imagine her appearing in one of my dreams to give me a right rollicking about something that does not meet with her approval. So far, so good, though.
BJH A woman who travelled incognito all over Asia, spent several long periods in Tibet, and lived as a hermit in a cave in the Himalayas—when and how did you first encounter the life of Alexandra David Neel?
DH Can’t pinpoint an exact year, but know that somewhere in my early 20s, probably, I came across a reference to her book, My Journey to Lhasa. Promptly bought a copy and read about her amazing trek. At that time, I was doing a fair bit of reading about Buddhism and fancied myself to be as intellectually cool as Beat Generation icons like Alan Watts and Allen Ginsberg. When she died in 1969, I also read an article that highlighted her achievements.
BJH I know that you have spent many years on the research and writing of this book, and I, as many other authors will as well, understand how we become enthralled with a character or story and arrive at a point where interest become obsession. Is it fair to say that it was obsession that drove you to persevere with this story? Did the interest develop over time, or did you know from the earliest research that you would have to write this story? Were there times when you tried to put it aside?
DH Obsession is the correct word. My early research was driven mainly by curiosity. Who was this woman? Where did she travel to and why? But, as time went by the hidden Alexandra became my focus. The biographies I read didn’t seem to delve deep enough into her psyche so I started to formulate my plan for a work of historical fiction.
BJH “Ever since I was five years old…I craved to go beyond the garden gate, to follow the road that passed it by and set out for the unknown,” —My Journey to Lhasa, Alexandra David Neel.
Does the quote speak to you on a personal level? Do you identify with her wanderlust?
DH Another excellent question! Well to be honest, I am certainly not as intrepid or brave as Alexandra, nor would I be comfortable packing heat as she did. I do enjoy traveling, but coming back to a home base seems to be almost as important to me (at least now) as going off on trips to unknown parts. People and their stories are my keenest interest so if following the road takes me in that direction that would be my ideal. Walking several sections of the Camino pilgrimage path on two occasions was like that. So many interesting people, so many stories!
BJH This is the portrait of a woman on a deeply spiritual journey in search of revered teachers of Buddhism and the Tibetan language. Did it become, vicariously, such a journey for you as well?
DH Yes, it certainly did become that kind of journey. Over the years, I became more and more interested in knowing more about both Buddhism and Tibet. Did try to learn some Tibetan and to practice it with a Tibetan speaking pen pal, but really haven’t progressed much. In both Edmonton and Nelson, I have done drop in meditation sessions at Buddhist centres and have appreciated the calmness but really don’t profess to know very much. Reading seems to be my number one way to make this journey. The teachings and books of Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia top of my spiritual journey booklist.
BJH The numerous sources you acknowledge with gratitude, speak to impeccable and eclectic research. You have had a long and successful career as a librarian and consultant. How did this experience influence your approach? How did the people you contacted respond to your interest in Alexandra?
DH My research skills have certainly been honed by my training and work life as a librarian. I took copious notes from books that I had collected over the years and also spent many hours at the University of Alberta library.
Several binders and a bulging brocaded bag of folders soon filled up. I also travelled to France with my husband and spent a few hours at the Alexandra David-Neel Museum in Digne les Bains. Walking in her footsteps into the room in which she wrote and died was truly moving, and eerie. I told the staff there about my project and later my publisher made arrangements to buy the rights to some archival photographs. They were very cooperative, although there were a few bumps because of our limited French and their limited English.
BJH What different formats did you eventually amass? Could you describe the process of sorting, culling, organizing what must have been a formidable mountain of material?
DH From binders, and handwritten notes, I progressed to a number of computer files. Because Alexandra lived for so many years and had so many distinctive parts to her life, the chronology fell into order quite nicely. The problem was figuring out what to leave out and also how to prevent it from turning into a dry, discursive account. By interweaving the first-person chapters with the third-person accounts, I hoped to achieve some sort of balance.
BJH The voice in which you’ve written the sections that are headed “From the journals of Alexandra David-Neel”, has the ring of authenticity and intimacy. It feels as though you were inside the skin of your subject and writing her perception of her world and the life she was leading. I thought, at first, that these were the actual journals. The narrator in the other sections has the same eloquence of voice. This is what writers hope they will accomplish, this sense of being the character. Was it difficult at times to sustain that voice, or did the research provide enough of both the insight and the language to guide you?
DH It was difficult at times, yes, but when that happened I would just do my best to “channel” Alexandra. My great-grandmother on my mother’s side was a practising Spiritualist who communicated with long-dead people and pets, so perhaps there was an inherited disposition at work. Going back to the stacks of books and the voluminous pages of notes really helped as well.
BJH The description of the land through which Alexandra travelled has that same authenticity. Have you been to Tibet? Any plans to go there?
DH No, I haven’t been to Tibet, although I have read many books related to this fascinating country. The current political situation is upsetting. I have a Tibetan Buddhist monk pen pal (who grew up in exile in India) who is currently attempting to do educational and environmental work in Tawang province very close to the Tibetan border. The Chinese government, without consulting with local residents, is planning to go ahead with a number of hydroelectric projects that would destroy sacred cultural sites and habitats for endangered species. Police fired on peaceful protesters last year with two deaths recorded. I am also bothered by the vilification of the current Dalai Lama by the government, so yet another reason that I won’t be travelling to Tibet.
BJH Authors usually have a particular intent, a vision, for the work they are producing. Can you describe briefly what your intent was?
DH In brief, my intent was to introduce more English readers to this remarkable woman and to show myself that I could actually finish writing a work that had been started years ago. I also didn’t want to disappoint the very patient publisher who, after reading the first few chapters on Wattpad, had offered to publish the book – the best incentive for any writer!
BJH What other writing have you done?
DH I have been a scribbler for a long time. This is my first book, but over the years I have had shorter pieces published in newspapers – a children’s story and several columns in The Edmonton Journal and an essay in The Globe and Mail. One of the pieces previously published in The Edmonton Journal has recently been included in Lotus Petals in the Snow – Voices of Canadian Buddhist Women (The Sumeru Press). I have also done some contract writing for Alberta Education (related to school libraries) and have written two radio plays for Alberta School Broadcasts (in the way, way back). Some book reviewing for school library magazines and a vitriolic clutch of letters to the editor on topics near and dear to my heart complete my oeuvre, such as it is.
BJH And the tired old question that must come at the end of any author interview: Do you have another project in progress?
DH Thank you for asking. Yes, I do, but details will be sparse. For some reason, I harbour very old-fashioned superstitions about talking about projects too much before they are complete. Don’t want to jinx things. A truly silly idea from a deeply flawed person – forgive me, please.
Now for the sparse details. If/when this project is finished, it will be a work of fiction set in contemporary times that features the appearance of a long-dead American literary icon (female). Time is a series of metaphysical spaces rather than a process in this world. No zombies or vampires, just some quirky fun
BJH And another that seems to be expected these days—What are you currently reading?
DH I have two daily reading rituals. To ease into the day, I adjourn most mornings to my poetry chair. This time features poems from three collections. Staying Alive – Real Poems for Unreal Times (a truly magnificent anthology edited by Neal Astley) Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins, and New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver. I read the poems aloud – the plants seem to thrive on these words – and keep this book stack on shuffle. Which book today? Which random page to begin at? Oh, the excitement never ends!
To ease out of the day, I adjourn to the bedroom no later than nine (having given up the CBC TV news – induces glumness and troubling dreams) to read books taken out of our local public library. Usually have two or three on the bedside table. The one currently in progress is The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, a very fine work of historical fiction inspired by almost fifty cases of so-called Fasting Girls in the British Isles, Western Europe, and North America between the 16th and 20th centuries. Highly recommended! Coming up next is Carol by Patricia Highsmith. An article some time ago in The New York Review of Books has piqued my interest in Highsmith. Read The Talented Mr. Ripley some years ago and was very impressed.
I am, of course, terrifically curious to know the identity of that “long-dead American literary icon. Looking forward to hearing more. Thank you, Dianne. For persevering in your quest to reveal some of the mystery around this amazing woman, and for this chance to talk with you about the book.
For information on the publisher who produced this beautiful book:
Available from Chapters Indigo: https://tinyurl.com/z4vx4n7
Even better, check with your local indie bookstore to see if they can order for you.
And of course, always a good idea to contact your local public and suggest a title you’d like them to order.