Fifteen years ago, I was reading Lost Horizon repeatedly and thinking about Shangri-La continually. Like Alexander Woollcott so many decades earlier, I had gone “quietly mad” over James Hilton’s book, I think now because I was clinging to the thought that somewhere there existed a refuge of sanity.
In September, 1979, I began to write Messenger as a sequel.
Why? Several reasons.
* To win fame and fortune. (Ask any author you know.)
* To finish at least one of the novels I intended to write.
* To persuade myself that Shangri-La could have survived the coming of the Red Chinese.
* To protest the death of Tibetan culture, and the fact that no one in the West seemed to care.
* To emphasize the importance of individual spiritual development, at a time when all the nation’s attention seemed to be aimed outward.
* To express something of what I had learned about life and meaning, most notably from the work of Laurens van der Post and Carl Jung.
I wrote Messenger four times, and each time the focus, the center of gravity, changed, almost against my will. In fact, the only chapters to survive more or less intact through all four versions are the one dealing with Miss Brinklow and the one describing George’s – originally Dennis’s – first experience of the drunken monkey.
I began the first version at about the time of my brother Joe’s sudden and mysterious death. (I have never been able to trace the underlying emotional connection between the two events, but I know it’s there.) Denis Corbin was the protagonist. In that first version, George Chiari was nowhere to be seen. Central to that version was my conviction, fortunately erroneous, of the imminence of the Last World War. Equally central, equally erroneous, was a reluctance to concede that life is to be lived here, wherever we are, rather than somewhere else.
A second version attempted to tell Corbin’s story as a flashback after his return to America. I realize now that I was working on returning the focus from far-off Tibet to the world around us. I didn’t know it then.
When a third version followed, a few years later, George Chiari entered the scene, complete with as much of my background as I found it entertaining to give him. Also, psychic matters and the nature of reality took center stage. In that version, the section called Another World was as long as either of the other two parts. Fortunately my friend Suni Dunbar (whose painting of Shangri-La graces the cover) persuaded me this would not do. “It’s boring,” she said bluntly, and she was right, as always.
Finally, for no reason I could ever figure out, came the gift of the Saturday morning in 1988 when I sat down with a cup of coffee and a pen and a legal pad in my dining room, looking out at the marsh behind my house, and began writing out a new version, beginning with George Chiari’s U-2 taking off from Peshawar. As I wrote I could see the action as though I were watching a movie. In fact, as I wrote I could imagine the movie version: silent shots of Chiari being bundled into his airplane in the predawn darkness; the U-2 soaring into the sky; flight far over land, over increasingly rugged scenery, as the credits and titles began to roll. Then – still with no words – a quick shot of his engine exhaust suddenly ceasing; his face, startled, followed by him beginning to flip switches….
I wrote all of Chapter One that morning, as I recall, and the rest of the book followed smoothly and relatively easily. The revisions and changes that have taken place since then have all been minor. Messenger took 15 years to write, or took only a few months. I can’t decide which statement is less misleading. And although I put plenty of work into it, I’m not always sure who wrote it.