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Question Authority

[whitespace] Author Katherine Neville seeks some answers in 'The Apostle'

By David Templeton


In his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation, David Templeton interrupts the business trip of the best-selling novelist Katherine Neville--author of The Eight--to discuss the richly symbolic movie The Apostle.

The hotel dining room is nearly empty as I walk in from the rain and begin my search for Katherine Neville. At 9 a.m., it appears to be either too early for breakfast, or too late; only a handful of the hotel guests are present, scattered throughout the immense, abundantly windowed room that overlooks a dramatically stormy San Francisco Bay.

Toward the back, beside the window, Neville has seen me before I've noticed her, and she waves me over to her table.

"I almost called you last night," she says warmly. "I saw the movie yesterday afternoon, and when I came out of the theater I could almost not wait to talk about it, but I decided to force myself. Will you have some breakfast?"

Neville is the best-selling author of the genre-busting historical/fantasy/mystery/ adventure The Eight (Ballantine, 1988). A novel about the quest for the eight missing pieces of Charlemagne's chess set, it defied easy categorization (one critic called it "a feminist Raiders of the Lost Ark") as it climbed the charts exactly one decade ago. After a foray into more conventional forms of literature, Neville is now preparing for the release of The Magic Circle (Ballantine, 1998), a book so rich and wide in scope it makes the previous effort seem like a mere warm-up.

Skipping back and forth throughout time and across the globe, The Magic Circle begins during the last week in the life of Jesus as a new 2,000-year cycle was beginning. Spanning the millennia and incorporating dozens of historical figures up to 1989, The Magic Circle ends as a young woman attempts to solve the mysteries within a secret collection of ancient manuscripts that may suggest what is in store for mankind as the current cycle gives way to the next. Ultimately, Neville's gleefully inventive and entertaining novel attempts nothing less than to find a common link between all the world's religions and faiths.

In town for a series of meetings with various agents--a filmed version of The Eight is not far off, Neville hints--she was eager to see Robert Duvall's magnificent, Oscar-nominated film, The Apostle, yet to open anywhere near her home in Radford, Va., deep in the very Bible-belt terrain visited in the film. It's the story of a grinning, sinning, and winningly charismatic preacher, who is convinced he hears the voice of God and abandons his identity following an explosive tragedy. Renaming himself The Apostle, he attempts to find redemption by rebuilding a tiny church in the backwaters of Louisiana.

"I was thinking about something all the time I was watching the movie," Neville says, sliding her grapefruit aside and leaning forward, "how by the time I was 10 or 12 I really didn't believe in God at all--I sort of believed in God the way you believe in Santa Claus, like it would be nice if there were a benevolent old man in the sky who took care of us--but I wasn't interested in organized religion." In her early teens, in the mid-1950s, she began studying yoga and embarked on a lifelong exploration of all the different spiritual idealogies she could grasp, including Sufism, Druid transformation, Shivaism, paganism, and, more recently, various Christian-based belief systems such as Mormonism and the Jehovah's Witnesses.

"I think what really happened to me was that, at some point, I just started to feel like I was not alone," she explains. "That there was someone hanging around with me. That scene in the film where Robert Duvall goes up in the attic and has his big argument with God? That was so real to me. There have so many times that I've gone, 'God, I am really pissed off with you!' So at some point, I developed this personal relationship with God."

"Outside of any formal religion telling you how to do it?" I ask.

"Yes, but not just outside it," she replies. "Almost 'in spite of' or 'as opposed to.' It was when I visited Africa that, for the first time, I began to see the reason for religion. Before that, I used to ask myself the question, 'If religion is so boring and stupid, why is it so popular?'"

"So, what did you come up with?" I wonder.

"Well, that's another thing I was thinking about all during the movie," Neville says. "I think people really need it. All the people who went to this man's church were given something they needed. First of all, a fabulous group experience. And that's the way the original pagan religions were, they were part of the community."

"Duvall's character believed he was the chosen one of God," I say. "Have you ever felt that you were chosen for any special purpose?"

"The short answer is no. Not the way you mean," she laughs. "I'd say I don't feel chosen, so much as pointed. I've always known what I was supposed to do, that I was supposed to write, and that I was to ask questions."

"And have you found any answers?"

"Some," she nods. Smiling, she adds, "They're in the book. "But the answer, I believe, is simply in asking the right questions to begin with."

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From the February 19-25, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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