Author Interview: Jeffrey Small Answers Our Questions About His Debut Novel The Breath Of God
Jeffrey Small’s March suspense, The Breath of God, received an RT Top Pick! This debut book is plotted around a real historical document from 1887 that continues to be controversial. So we knew we would have to go straight to the author to answers about this intriguing new tale!
Writing about missing texts following Jesus' life opens you up to criticism from Biblical and religious readers. Were you at all intimidated by this?
I suspected that two of the novel's themes would be controversial: exploring the mystery behind what Jesus was doing in the twenty years of his life that the Bible doesn't address that made him into the man he became and the importance of inter-religious dialogue so that we can understand the influences among and the common themes between the world's religions. Throughout history, religion has been one of the major causes of war, persecution, and exclusion. We see these problems ongoing today with Islamic terrorism and with what I call "Country Club Christianity"—the attitude that "I'm saved, but you're not" that leads to persecution of gays, discrimination against those of other religions, and the relegation of women to subservient roles. By having more dialogue among religions, we cannot only lessen these tensions by exploring the commonalities rather than the differences among the great faiths of the world, but we can also enlighten our own faiths by opening our minds to ideas we may not have considered. Rather than being intimidated by a reaction to these themes, I felt a calling to bring them out into the open.
There are a lot of very heavy hitters writing blockbuster novels based on Biblical mysteries (especially the big one, Dan Brown). Why did you choose this as the subject for your debut novel?
As I began working on The Breath of God in January 2005 and then saw the popularity of Dan Brown explode, I knew that I would be compared to him, but what I have tried to do with my novel is very different than the superficial similarity that we both explore a controversial Biblical mystery. Whereas Brown does a masterful job of weaving his controversy into a plot device that drives his story, The Breath of God delves deeply into the mystical and spiritual mysteries that are common to both the Eastern and Western religions. When I first learned about the mystery of the so-called Missing Years in the life of Jesus, I was drawn to the idea that he may have been influenced by other religions, which is why we can find so many parallels between his teachings and the Buddha's, for example. I was also fascinated by how different and colorful the culture and history of India was, and I thought that alternating the novel's scenes between the American South, India, and the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan would create an interesting journey of contrasts for the reader. The "historical" part of my plot also serves as a mechanism to take my characters on their own personal spiritual journeys, which I hope are relevant and meaningful to any reader regardless of their own religious beliefs.
What can you tell readers about the 1887 document that The Breath of God is based on?
The idea behind the story of the The Breath of God is based around an actual historical event: the controversial discovery by a Russian journalist named Nicholas Notovitch in 1887 in a Himalayan monastery. Notovitch claimed that the monks in the monastery had proof of the activities of Jesus of Nazareth during the twenty years of his life between a temple appearance at age twelve until he began his ministry at thirty, a period about which the Bible is silent, that shaped him into the man he became. After Notovitch published his findings, he was denounced by the academic authorities of his day without any serious investigation of his claim. A few others over the next two decades also saw the proof he did, but then everything vanished from the remote monastery.
What other research was required for your novel?
I spent a month traveling through India and Bhutan researching the novel's settings while I also took classes in yoga, Hindu philosophy, and meditation. I've tried to capture the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells (especially the smells!) of these exotic locations accurately in my writing. In the beginning stages of my research, I read over fifty books and journal articles on world religions, theology, and philosophy. I became so intrigued by my study of the common mystical traditions within the world's religions that I moved my family to England in 2008-9 while I pursued a Master's degree in the subject at Oxford University.
Have you started working on your next novel? Will this one have a controversial topic as well?
I have just finished the first draft of my second novel. I'm sure that some will find it controversial as well! The purpose of my writing, however, is not to create controversy for its own sake, but to raise questions that make people think. To me, religious ideas should be debated and explored. We should embrace uncertainty and doubt as part of the process of learning and understanding. Also, in the thriller/suspense genre, my second novel explores the scientific and psychological basis behind mystical experiences of the divine.
What are your favorite books based on Biblical mysteries?
I did enjoy the DVC, although at times it left me wanting to know more about the questions it raised. I wish that Brown had explored his themes a little deeper rather than only using the mystery as a plot device. That being said, I think it's hard to argue with his success! Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy a number of the books that followed in his footsteps (ones that I'll inevitably be compared to!) but I think that the Bible is so full of mystery that could be mined in the future. However, much of the writing in this area falls under the category of Christian fiction, which doesn't really interest me—I'd rather read mainstream fiction that makes me think rather than tries to preach to me.
When I think about some of the Biblical mysteries that are ripe for further exploration, I've always been fascinated by the apocalyptic literature of the Books of Daniel in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New Testament. The imagery of these books is so powerful and has inspired speculation for centuries about whether the world as we know it will end and what that might look like. But only in the past sixty years have we developed the technology to actually bring about the type of apocalypse described in these writings. Also, I find the resurrection stories of Jesus to be an interesting mystery because the accounts of this event are not nearly as clear-cut as many churches teach. In some of the Gospel's Jesus' appearances take on spirit-like qualities because he suddenly appears inside a locked room in the middle of a group of people. In others, his close disciples do not recognize him, even after spending the day walking with him and eating a meal. Other accounts, however, are purely physical such as John's description of Thomas checking out Jesus' wounds. Paul, on the other hand, never met Jesus during his lifetime, and yet he describes the resurrection as more of a visionary experience. So what really happened that inspired these first followers?
As The Breath of God demonstrates, I also find the writings of the East to be a treasure trove of material to be mined for themes as well. Religion has inspired humanity since our history began, and it will continue to do so in the future.
Interested in learning more about Small's take on the Notovich documents of 1887? You can pick up your own copy of The Breath of God in stores now.