3/10/14 INTERVIEW WITH PEGGY PAYNE, AUTHOR OF COBALT BLUE
Throughout her career as a novelist, Peggy Payne has explored aspects of spiritual and supernatural phenomena. Her first novel, Revelation, deals with a Christian minister who hears God speak to him out loud. Her second, Sister India, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, follows an American woman as she seeks sanctuary in Varanasi (Benares), India, destination of the holiest Hindu pilgrimage. Payne’s latest novel, Cobalt Blue, as I said in my review last month, describes the turbulent experience of kundalini rising. Cobalt Blue earned the rare distinction of having been the book of the month on a Playboy Radio Network program and in the top 100 spiritual books for Kindle.
Today, the author answers my questions about Cobalt Blue, her interest in spirituality, and other aspects of writing.
SW: What prompted your interest in spiritual and supernatural phenomena?
PP: Without any conscious decision, I found that whatever piece of fiction I started writing took a turn toward the mysterious, spiritual, and the supernatural. I’d always had some curiosity about such matters; as a high school project, I tested my twin brothers for ESP. I have a memory of being very young and “playing Sunday school.” That consisted of placing toys very carefully in a special arrangement. It seemed to make sense at the time.
SW: Did your interest in spirituality begin with Christianity and then expand?
PP: I grew up Methodist, then as an adult joined a rogue liberal Baptist Church. I had a sort of moment of revelation at 22. I’d been working on an article on paranormal research and was coming back from talking with the Rhines at their parapsychology institute in Durham, when I had a great rush of emotion and the thought: It’s All True. And that simple three words seems to have guided me since; I do feel that every religion and metaphysical mystery has some important truth in it, that each is a different interpretation of the truth.
SW: In Cobalt Blue, you describe a connection between spirituality and sexuality, which for some people could be controversial. Did you have any qualms about tackling this subject, and if so, what made you decide to do it anyway?
PP: Again, I didn’t decide; it was more an experience of being caught by an undertow or rip tide. I think that same current still has hold of me.
SW: Is it significant that the story begins in Pinehurst, North Carolina, or could it have happened anywhere?
PP: I did make a conscious choice of Pinehurst. I wanted a small sophisticated conservative town: sophisticated enough to draw Andie’s family there and to keep her there, small enough so that people know each other, and conservative for greater contrast to her outrageous behavior.
SW: One of the early manifestations of Andie’s experience with kundalini in Cobalt Blue is a heightened energy and insight for her painting. As a writer, I found this phenomenon interesting. What do you think is the relationship (if any) between spirituality and creativity?
PP: Seems to me that it would help anyone’s work to be able to draw on the fullest most powerful resources–and to feel that there’s another force beyond one’s self that might be willing to help out.
SW: Tell us about any research you did for Cobalt Blue. What types of resources did you use and how long did it take you to get the information you needed?
PP: Here’s the spookiest thing about the process of writing this book: I had finished several drafts before the word kundalini came to me. The whole story had been about erupting life force and creativity, and the family relationships. Then I was sitting on my porch one night watching the rain and I thought: It’s kundalini. Well, I didn’t know what the word meant. I had overheard it once at a party: one woman making gestures of agitated frustration about her recent emotional state and her friend saying, “Maybe it’s your kundalini.”
So when it came to my mind later on the porch, I knew no more than that. I went inside and looked it up. The experience and struggle Andie has perfectly matched what I read about a rough unprepared-for spiritual emergence of this sort: an eruption of life force from a reservoir at the base of the spine that ultimately results in union with the divine.
Then I did research on and off as I finished the book, bringing in this name for the fountain of energy that throws Andie so severely out of balance. The research was reading books and online sources about kundalini, tantra, chakras, energy.
SW: What do you think made Andie susceptible to the rise of kundalini?
PP: She was at a low point in her life. Her guard was down. She was vulnerable. And then it was triggered by the trance of doing her painting, as does happen sometimes. The safer way to go about this is through long meditation and being prepared.
SW: Why did you choose a political character as a test for Andie’s emerging self?
PP: The senator grew out of my outrage at North Carolina’s right wing and from my years of political reporting for a newspaper and public TV. And, this is more interesting to me, from the paradox of how charming, seductive, beguiling an evil-doer can be.
I chose him for Andie because he’s the man she’d least like to get involved with.
With a friend, I attended a day of a murder trial to get some details I could use for him. I rode in the elevator with the defendant, who was later convicted. From him I gathered the senator’s eyes as he smiles at Andie on the golf course.
SW: How did the idea for Cobalt Blue begin?
PP: It started out to be a bedroom comedy. I wanted to write something light and less intense than my first novel Revelation, to give myself a sort of rest. The premise that came to mind was woman alone, turning 40, tired of living on an artist’s income, decides to turn a few discreet tricks in her small conservative hometown. But then that situation did not turn out to be a comedy.
SW: Why did you choose water to be so significant in the story?
PP: I grew up on the North Carolina coast, between a river and the ocean.
Water is the visible form that magic often takes in my work, certainly in Cobalt Blue and also in my novel Sister India, which is set on the Ganges.
SW: Which character in Cobalt Blue was the hardest to create? Which one was the easiest?
PP: Senator Billy Sylvester was the easiest; I found him charming in spite of myself. The hardest? Andie. I had to go pretty deep to make her behavior comprehensible.
SW: In a post on your blog, you talk about labeling your first novel, Revelation. What are your thoughts on categorizing the novels you write? Do you object to the label Women’s Fiction?
PP: If my books easily fit into a category, I’d likely be all in favor of the categorizing. But they don’t and so the labels are a problem for me. The idea of Women’s Fiction doesn’t please me; it adds one more detail to the stereotypes of women. But it’s not one of my hot-button issues.
SW: After selling screen rights to Revelation to Synergy Films in Atlanta, you said you want Colin Firth to play the Rev. Swain Hammond, the minister who hears God speak. Firth’s one of my favorite actors. Why do you think he’s right for this part?
PP: He’s good at playing men who are attractive, elegant/eloquent, and very reserved (but who tend to loosen up as the story goes on). Curiously, Cobalt Blue was published by a press (Roundfire) in the English town where he spent his high school years. Fated, wouldn’t you say?
SW: What’s your next novel about? Will you explore another aspect of spirituality?
PP: I have two books in progress (very slow progress). One is a biography of a painter/mystic who was a pillar of her community even as she felt led by Athena and visited some evenings by King Arthur and Merlin. The other book is a novel about a young teenager with a spirit-boyfriend.