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Interview with Paul Steven Stone

by Edie Weinstein Moser

Ever wonder if there is a cosmic comedian behind the scenes, scripting the most bizarre sequence of events imaginable and then handing it to you, saying "Here is your life"? The cherry red (or is it fire-engine red?) cover of the new novel by ad-man Paul Steven Stone, "Or So It Seems" bears the image of a blind elephant wearing sunglasses, holding a cane in front of itself, attempting to find its way in the dark. The words dancing across the cover ask the question "Who knew the universe had such a sense of humor?" and boldly proclaim the somewhat cautionary note "Or So It Seems". An invitation begins with the first page, as on it he writes "My mom says you won’t buy this book" - and we’re off to the races!

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is a glossary at the back that contains some standard spiritual terms such as Karma and Mantra, but also such concepts as Karmic Gravitational Slide, that Paul defines as "Being drawn, under the force of Karma, through an apparently haphazard chain of events toward an inevitable climax." Savoring the book page by page, delicious nibbles at a time, is another pleasure inherent in the pages.

Paul’s ‘mainstream’ job is creating ad campaigns; many for socially conscious causes. On his website www.paulsteven stone.com he refers to himself as a ‘damned good writer’ and so he is.

When I contacted Paul for this interview, he gleefully asked about trekking down to Philadelphia from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts to speak in person, sensing the imminent adventure that we were both to embark upon. As it turns out, the universal jokester was at play. When I walked into the restaurant, I saw two friends, Peter and Jackie, who I knew would simply love Paul and the book. One of the main characters in "Or So It Seems" is an Indian spiritual teacher that Paul has named "The Bapucharya" who was the founder of a fictional philosophical school called The Seekers For Truth, in which the main character Paul Peterson (close enough to be only slightly autobiographical) had once been a student.

At dinner, Paul relates that although "Bapu" which is Hindi for ‘papa’ , and is described as a "fully realized holy man", has an accent, he can’t emulate it. A smile lights my face, since I know that Peter, having studied for more than 20 years with an Indian spiritual teacher himself, is able to offer a marvelous accent so that you might misguidedly suspect he was born in Delhi. I invite my friends to join us at the table and they gladly accept. Once he hears Peter’s intonations, Paul invites him to join him on the road. The reason I am telling you this story, is that this is a perfect example of the types of interactions that our protagonist has throughout the book that leave the reader wondering if the events of his life and ours are so scripted or random in nature. In many ways, the interview seemed like a scene from the classic film "My Dinner with Andre."

Wisdom: This book has evolved over more than a decade. How long did it actually take from start to finish?

Paul: It took me more than 12 years to write. As for the title, generally my guides wait until the middle of the night to give me ideas, but for some reason the novel’s title came to me in the middle of a class at my church. Up until that point, it was going to be called "Mr. Peterson’s Do-It-Yourself Workshop", but all of a sudden "Or So It Seems" took over the playing field. The title forced me to go back and start re-writing, making "Or So It Seems" part of the fabric of the story. So much of the story has to do with perception of reality, even the blind elephant on the cover goes along with that. It’s all about layers of reality, and how much of that reality we can see or comprehend.

Wisdom: Is that the way you live your life, that things are only as we perceive them to be?

Paul: I think so. For whatever reason, I am aware of what is global even in the midst of an event that is off-putting or causes anxiety.

Wisdom: Do you see a broader reality?

Paul: It’s more like I get a sense of what is happening or what needs to happen. My daughter was struggling to find a job after law school and I knew the reality was that she didn’t need to find a job. All she had to do was move the energy in the right direction. If you get caught up in having to hit the bulls-eye right off, you’re just working against yourself.

Wisdom: Is the idea that the job is already there and it is a matter of shifting her perception to see it?

Paul: No, I don’t see it that way. I don’t believe in pre-destination quite to that extreme. I believe we are moving in one direction or another. I don’t know where my daughter will end up in her career, but the energy is in motion and that’s what counts. The other thing I am very much aware of…as we go through life, we appear to be moving haphazardly. I’m 62 years old and as I look back at those years, they seem to have more of a trajectory—a focused direction—than I was ever aware of when I was moving through them.

Wisdom: Do you think that it is a blend of ‘meant to be’ and random?

Paul: The character in the novel can’t reconcile how pre-destination and Free Will work together. At one point, he says it is like being able to win a tennis match whose final score is already fixed against you. He learned this with the Seekers For Truth but he never understood the mechanics of how it all works. Who knows if any of the Seekers, other than The Bapucharya, could explain how it works.

Wisdom: You mention something about someone being a ‘fully realized’ human being. Is that possible? How would one know that they are ‘fully realized’?

Paul: I have never met someone in that state, but I have heard enough stories to believe those people exist. I have also been told that some of them have made the decision to stay on in human form to serve mankind.

Wisdom: Is the book autobiographical?

Paul: Terribly. Embarrassingly so. But still it’s fiction, for the most part. Working in advertising, you think I would be more creative than to have a protagonist who works in advertising, has three children, and who’s putting his life back together after divorce. I don’t know why I stayed so close to the line. I wrote the novel as a way of dealing with my divorce and after seven years I believed I had finished it. A literary agent suggested it needed more narrative tension. The story was fairly well written, with a linear narrative, but in some ways kind of boring. I intended to merely transpose one event from the back of the novel to the front, to add a little drama and suspense. However, when I sat down to do it, it was as if a door opened inside my head and a voice said, "Now you are going to write the novel you were supposed to write", and it scared me. I didn’t want to spend another seven years working on this book, nor did I want to throw out what I had already written. What came in was all this playful stuff, this whole spiritual journey. There was none of that before. The Bapucharya did not exist as a character, the Seekers For Truth had no role in the story, Paul Peterson’s spiritual odyssey was totally absent. In rewriting the first chapter, the concept of ILE (Individual Life Experience) came up and I thought to myself "Wow! Where did that come from?" And the whole thing about "Drink your RC Cola", (which means to "Rest in Consciousness, to stay alert and observant in the present moment, rather than get swept away in imaginings, passing thoughts and swirling emotions") that was totally out of the blue, as well. All of it reflects my background, interests and passions, but none of it was thought out as a conscious narrative.

Wisdom: So have the names of the characters been changed to ‘protect the innocent’, like your children, so as not to embarrass them?

Paul: Yes. Two of my children have read it completely. One is still working herself up to it. The divorce was a painful experience for all of us, so having that within the novel for the world to read about, is not easy for them. If this were the novel I had written those first seven years, it would have been all about the divorce and nothing about the character’s spiritual odyssey. Happily, the book is so much more, so much bigger.

Wisdom: Did you create the main character or did he create you?

Paul: I don’t know. As I said, he is a reflection of me. I was speaking to a friend on the phone and she insists the character is not me. My children argue, "Come on, dad, who else could it be…three children, the ages are the same, his name is Paul, etc., etc.?"

Wisdom: I’ve gotten to three women in the book so far…Allison, Ellie and Ilyana.

Paul: All three are fabricated.

Wisdom: I think you need to be careful when in relationship with a writer or musician; that you might get written about.

Paul: When I was writing this, I was living with a girlfriend and I think the Ellie character was moving in her direction. My girlfriend very clearly laid down the law, so I stepped back and re-envisioned the character.

Wisdom: So, beside the divorce, what was the creative spark that inspired you to write this book?

Paul: I think you will relate to this as a writer. I believe I was always supposed to write a book, as part of my journey.

Wisdom: I thought you didn’t believe in pre-destination.

Paul: I believe I have the Free Will to follow my destiny or not. There is a sound we all have resonating inside us about our journey and about learning the lessons and meeting the challenges that await us. I would think a well-lived life is all about how well we answer that inner call. Some of us make it and some of us don’t. Ultimately, I don’t think this journey would mean much, or be very satisfying, if was just some higher being’s script and we were all merely following it.

Wisdom: Are there some things you wondered as you wrote the book "Alright, who thought this one up? Where did this one come from?"

Paul: There are a lot of things in the book that strike me as fun. I really enjoyed writing it because it was so fanciful and gave me a framework in which to be playful, to have fun. In my advertising career, I do TV commercials for W.B. Mason. Most of what I’m trying to do is create affection between Mason and those viewing the commercials. Occasionally there is an advertising message, but that’s of secondary importance.

Wisdom: Is marketing all about relationships?

Paul: I believe that’s another way of saying ‘creating affection’.

Wisdom: Do you feel the same way about the characters in the book, that you are not only creating relationships between them, but between them and the reader?

Paul: I don’t know that I would have thought that originally, but I definitely think so now. What you said about savoring it; I had a reaction from a fellow author who I happened to meet at a book store. We got to talking and I ended up buying his book and he bought mine. A week later, he sent me this email that astounded me. He’d been reading "Or So It Seems" and liked it so much, and thought it was so important, that he now waited until he attained a sufficiently high level of receptivity before allowing himself to read it. I never thought of the book that way. Then later, while my son was reading the novel, something came up in his life that caused him emotional turmoil and the book actually helped… there was something in it he could use in a practical way. That, too, surprised me.

Wisdom: Do you hear feedback that it is healing for people, that they see some of their own stuff reflected in it, or that they see you?

Paul: People who know my advertising work know me as somebody who can write creatively, but others probably don’t know what to expect. If they purchased the book blind, they’re probably worried they’ll hate it and have to say something to me, just to be polite. After all, it is self-published so there’s no gatekeeper. Happily, people have been surprised by the book, surprised they actually like it. They get engaged for different reasons and I love to hear about it. I hope to enjoy and suck the marrow out of this experience for the next few years. I’ve spent more than 12 years putting "Or So It Seems" together. Now I’m sending it out and, at the same time, it’s coming back to me.

Wisdom: It’s like a message in a bottle, now it’s being washed back ashore. Were you a reader and writer from an early age?

Paul: I was a reader. I went to college at 16 and dropped out at 18 and moved to California. It was a good thing to do when you’re 18 and have lived all your life in the Bronx. For whatever reason, I thought I could write a novel and started one. It was teenage angst and not very good teenage angst. But that was the beginning of my hearing the call.

Wisdom: Do you find that the things you believed back then have changed?

Paul: Joining the philosophy school (that Seekers For Truth was modeled after) was a crossroads experience which opened up beliefs I now hold to pretty strongly. Ideas you see reflected in "Or So It Seems".

Wisdom: What writers inspire you?

Paul: Mark Twain; especially his travel books. Mystery and suspense writers, like Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett.

Wisdom: When I first began reading your book, it reminded me very much of the style of Tom Robbins.

Paul: I’ve always loved the titles of his books such as "Even Cowgirls Get The Blues". I don’t know why I’ve never read him. Now I will.

Wisdom: I saw the forward of the book, with your mom’s commentary on it. I’m guessing that she really does support you in it.

Paul: I was just being playful. Sometimes you open a book to see what it’s about and there’s all this serious selling going on. I don’t have a problem with serious selling, but I wanted to give some indication there was fun ahead. That somebody was going to play with reality and all bets were off.

Wisdom: What I like about this, is that it is a dare...prove my mother wrong and buy the book!

Paul: We talk about pre-destination and free will; the book has always felt like it has its own energy. It’s part of my life and part of me and yet it’s also its own thing. I have this feeling that if I put out the energy to give it life, the book itself will take care of things from there. I hope I’m right.

"Or So It Seems" can be purchased at Amazon.com. To learn more about Paul and his work and to enjoy the book, go to www.paulstevenstone.com or www.orsoit seems.info.

An excerpt from "Or So It Seems" is now available on Wisdom’s webzine at www.wisdom-magazine.com - look under Special features!

Edie Weinstein-Moser is a free-lance journalist, radio talk show host, interfaith minister and workshop facilitator. You can reach her via her website: www.liveinjoy.org

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