Below is an interview with me on the writing of Master of the Jinn: A Sufi Novel. It was conducted by Ambrose Musiyiwa and published in various online venues in 2006. New readers of the novel have been asking about my backround and what led me to write it, so I post this as a good answer to many questions. It has been updated for accuracy. If you have other questions about the novel, ask them in the comments and I will try to answer them :)
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
I have always been an avid reader, and began writing poetry in my early teens. From there it progressed to working for magazine publishing companies as an editor and writer, continuing to write poetry, and after a few awkward attempts at my own fiction, getting the idea for Master of the Jinn.
I did not decide to be a writer; it was a gradual evolution and confluence of work opportunities and practice that led me to it.
Who would you say has influenced you the most?
The Sufi path of love has been my greatest influence, as you can tell by Master of the Jinn, but my love of good writing, and for certain genres, such as science-fiction, fantasy, and Persian and Arabic fiction and Sufi stories, all seemed to mesh together to influence me. And of course, the love and support of my beloved family, friends and darvishes, all fellow travelers on life’s journey.
What are darvishes?
A darvish is the same as a dervish, which is a disciple in a Sufi Order, or more accurately, a disciple of a Sufi Master. Darvish is the Persian way of spelling and pronouncing it.
What are your main concerns as a writer?
My only concern as a writer is to tell the truth as best I can, in the best way I am able. On the Sufi path this is a lifelong task. Also, to hone my writing skills, which to me is not only telling a story on paper, but adding some iota of understanding to the human experience.
How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?
The most influential personal experience was almost dying in 1986, and the out of body experience I had because of it. I was in the hospital for six weeks, and after I came out, by the grace of God, I had a new outlook and also many unanswered questions. I found the place to ask those questions on the Sufi path, and so that is what I write about — those eternal questions and way in which I am finding the answers to them, or finding how to ask better questions.
What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?
As far as personal challenges, advancing on the path, as to professional challenges, finding publishers and agents that believe in my work. And always to find better and more specific ways to tell the truth.
How do you deal with these?
One day at a time. I can’t do anything about the relentless commercialism of modern publishing, especially since it is a Sufi novel, about Muslims, published after 9/11, that no one wanted to touch. So after a couple of years of sending it out to agents and publishers, I decided to publish it myself.
As for telling the truth, it is a matter of finding what truth there is within myself, and my knowledge of the path and the world, and telling a story in that framework. Since I personally am deficient in knowledge and the path, all that is good in the book was God-inspired; all the rest is my own doing.
What is Master of the Jinn about?
It is a mystical adventure tale on the Sufi path of Love, wherein a modern-day Sufi Master sends seven companions on a quest for the greatest treasure of the ancient world – King Solomon’s ring. The legendary seal ring is said to control the Jinn, those terrifying demons of living fire, and in seeking it the companions discover not only the truth of the Jinn, but also the path of Love and the infinite mercy of God. That’s from the Amazon description, and fits nicely.
How long did it take you to write the novel?
Master of the Jinn took five years to write, another few years of sending it out, having it rejected, re-editing it, sending it out again, etc, until technology caught up with my intention and I could publish it inexpensively. After 9/11 it was impossible to publish any novel that portrayed Muslims as kind, generous and noble, even Sufis.
Where and when was it published?
It was published in the English edition in Sept. 2004 by Bay Street Press through Booksurge, a print on demand publisher in the U.S.A. They are now called Createspace and are owned by Amazon. It is also in seven other languages.
Master of the Jinn has been translated and published in Indonesian (Sang Raja Jin), Turkish (Cinlerin Efendisi), Russian (Povelitel dzhinnov), German (Meister der Jinn), Croatian (Gospodar demona), Spanish (El Maestro de los Jinn), and Malayalam, the language of the Kerala state of India (Jinnukalude Nadhan).
The Russian-language edition was published in 2001 by Sophia Publishing of Moscow. The Indonesian edition (in Bahasa, the national language) will be out in 2007, published in Jakarta by Prenada Media, as will the 2007 Turkish edition, published in Turkey by Inlan Yayinlari Publishing.
The Indian edition is under contract, to be published in Kerala State, in Malayalam, the language there. It will be out in 2008. I am in negotiations for a Dutch edition, and one in Hebrew, Arabic, and Farsi, God willing.
Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?
Of course, the most difficult part of writing the book was what comes next. And also being true to the Sufi path and myself, as well as the story.
Being a darvish of the Nimatullahi Sufi Order, I could not make up wise sayings, for instance. I am not wise. All that the Sufi Master in the book says as dialogue are actual words of Sufi masters of the past. And I wanted to start each chapter with a quote that fit the chapter. That was fun too.
Researching the story of King Solomon and early Hebrew life and culture, as well as the Taureg culture of the Sahara, was also a learning experience. All of what is written about it is factual, though woven into a fictional story.
Sometimes I would wait for six months between inspirations, until I read enough or learned enough, or something happened in my life and meditation that led me to the next sentence. It was a process of learning and becoming, of growing with the book.
Which did you enjoy most?
Honestly, the entire experience was the best time in my life. Writing a book you love with characters you love, or just writing and then reading a sentence or paragraph that works, that conveys what you have in your heart, of love and hope and God’s mercy, is one of the joys of being a writer. I could have kept working on it forever, and sometimes wish I was still working on it.
What sets the book apart from the other things you have written?
This is nothing like I have ever written, since it is my first book, but looking back over my poems and stories, I see a pattern emerging of a romantic nature to my writings. Perhaps the book is just an extension of that, with the influence of the Sufi path leading the way. The Sufi also consider God the Beloved.
What will your next book be about?
I am writing a sequel entitled Tale of Jinn. It will pick up where Master of the Jinn left off, and be a cosmology and a history as well as extend the tale into the future. It may turn out to be three or four books, I don’t know. The tale has taken on a life of its own. I am also working on a non-fiction book compiling my writings and poetry from the Darvish blog. The tentative title is Lessons in Love.
What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?
I don’t know that I have achieved anything significant as a writer. I loved writing the book, and many readers seem to love it also, rereading it multiple times. One reader told me she can’t wait to have children so she can read the book to them. That may be the nicest thing anyone has ever said to a writer, as least to this writer.
How did you get there?
With the love and teaching of Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, the late Master of the Nimatullahi Sufi Order, and now Dr. Alireza Nurbakhsh, the present Master, and by the grace and mercy of God. There is no other way to get anywhere.