Redfield, James (Profile)
In an eleventh-floor hotel suite, opportunity is calling: James Redfield's lawyer is on the line with yet another multimillion-dollar movie offer. "Tell him we'll get back to him," Redfield says. While other fledgling novelists might drop everything to dance to Hollywood's tune, the author of "The Celestine Prophecy" displays no such urgency. At the end of a Canadian book tour, Redfield settles back into a sofa and ponders unplugging his phone. "Our watchword is go slowly," says the former Alabama youth counsellor in his hesitant drawl. "I like to follow my intuition and make decisions based on how things feel." Not that anyone these days is likely to question Redfield's insistence on waiting for intimations from within. In the three years since he shrugged off publishers' rejection slips and spent his life's savings printing his spiritual thriller, then peddling it from the trunk of his car, he has managed to confound the corporate wisdom of the world's multimedia conglomerates. With 5.8 million copies sold in 32 countries and a stranglehold on the top spot of The New York Times best-seller list for the past 116 weeks, The Celestine Prophecy has become not so much a work of fiction as a pre-millennial phenomenon.
In the process, it has spawned a dizzying array of what the publisher's press agent calls "Celestine product." A workbook, autographed wall calendar and a monthly newsletter called The Celestine Journal are all available from a toll-free number, as are two audiotapes of meditations by the author's second wife, Salle Merrill Redfield, a former massage therapist who has snared her own two-book contract. No matter that critics panned Redfield's leaden prose and lumbering plot, which centres on the hunt for an ancient Peruvian manuscript chronicling nine insights into a new cosmic consciousness. His success clearly illustrates one feature of his ninth insight - which predicts that, in the dawning of a new spiritual age, the future of work may lie in dispensing mystical advice.
Indeed, since the recent release of a sequel called The Tenth Insight, he hinted that there are likely two more volumes to come. Entertainment Weekly magazine marvelled at a "cottage industry ... that just might transform the mild-mannered 46-year-old scribe into a Martha Stewart of the soul." But for Redfield, things are merely proceeding according to plan - or at least according to hunch. "I definitely had the intuition that if I stayed on track and created the book right," he says, "it could influence the world in a major way."
Quitting his counselling job seven years ago, Redfield retreated to a lakeside cabin inherited from his grandfather, a former game warden. There, he sifted through the spiritual reading he had been doing for two decades. "I had a need to sort through all the competing theories," he says. In fact, his aim was hardly modest: to herald the advent of "an ongoing spiritual transformation in our time." But while The Celestine Prophecy laid out the steps for that metamorphosis against the backdrop of an Andean rain forest, The Tenth Insight reworks the same ground in a less exotic landscape: an Appalachian valley not unlike the one where he experienced his own first eco-spiritual vision.
Once again, reviewers have lamented Redfield's simplistic summaries and impoverished style. But, in a protest perhaps unique among fiction writers, he insists they are no accident. "I keep explaining it's not a great American novel," he says. "It's a parable and you write parables a different way. I wanted it to be as accessible as possible."
As the sequel opens, the narrator, who also happens to be a former youth counsellor, has already strayed from the Celestine path when he receives word that a woman friend has disappeared. In the course of tracking her through a U.S. national forest where a mad scientist is up to no good, he gets a refresher course in the first nine insights, not to mention a hasty tour of human history, thanks to assorted otherworldly help. The book is, in part, a reply to Redfield's critics who argued that, contrary to his Pollyanna-ish prediction of a spiritual renaissance, the world is going to hell in an economic and environmental handbasket. His response: the naysayers can only be overcome by keeping the faith, or, as his subtitle puts it, Holding the Vision.
While writing, Redfield was struggling to hold on to his philosophical vision in the face of overwhelming success. "I'd just sort of lock the gate and pretend nothing had happened," he says. "The only fear was I'd get caught up in the hoopla." Still, that reticence left many in Hollywood miffed. And despite blandishments from suitors as varied as Toronto's Alliance Communications Corp. and actress Demi Moore, he has so far refused to relinquish the film rights. Insisting on "an A-list cast and director," he sees the narrator being played by Kevin Costner or William Hurt. But studio types hoot at his naïveté in trying to retain script control, cautioning against making his spiritual adventure too - well, too spiritual. "We just don't listen to that," Redfield says.
More than once he has been on the verge of making a deal, he explains, and then, "I'll get an image of myself backing off - and then I'll back off." Until a more positive premonition comes along, he is not afraid of the wait. But how will he know when the timing is, at last, right? The man known as the Celestine prophet smiles. "We'll just know," he says.
Maclean's June 10, 1996