Richard Marranca Explores Dragon Sutra
Richard Marranca has been a writer and college teacher for about twenty-five years. He has at least 150 stories, essays, poems and interviews published. His novel, Dragon Sutra, was recently released by Oak Tree Press and is an action/adventure/mystery/ coming of age novel that unfolds across Southeast Asia. He also has three online books: New York Interview (interviews of prominent authors, artists, scientists); Dragon Café (east west essays) and Sunburst Upanishad: Alexander in India (ancient world novel).
His hobbies include hiking, running, yoga, meditation, travel, museums and movies, tennis and fencing (not much of the last two but they are in my mind). He has had a Fulbright to teach at the University of Munich, as well as six National Endowments for the Humanities summer study grants (Modern Japan, Andes, The Alamo, World War II in the Pacific at East West Center Honolulu, Concord’s Transcendentalists and High Plains Indians of Nebraska). He is president of the New Jersey Chapter of Fulbright and a Trustee of New Jersey College English Association. He is available to talk and give seminars on a variety of topics. Www.RichardMarranca.com
Do you plan all your characters out before you start a story or do they develop as you write?
Generally I write out a few major characters, a loose outline and the theme. My novel Dragon Sutra is a mix of so many things: I stopped at a spa in Chiang Mai, Thailand and got to know the family, one of whom invited me back to their village for a few days. That gave me great insight into village life, rice fields, religion, food, history and so on. I happened to visit a famous temple called Wat Mahathat – it is an axis mundi for me, just amazing. I kept meeting people there who invited me to teach at a high school for monks and invited me to meet a lot of monks, including Computer Monk who appears in my novel. My friend Michael Jassie, a pilot who works for the FAA, happened to know a guy from California who moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia and opened a hotel called – guess what – Hotel California and California II. I stayed there and that became the hotel, more or less, in my novel. And I met people there who got me into things that helped me write my novel. In Yangon, Burma I met a kindly taxi driver who really taught me a lot about his culture and toured me around. All these disparate strands joined together, like yin yang, to create a hopefully coherent narrative. I had most of these characters before I wrote the novel, but a few new ones suddenly appeared while I was writing it. Years ago, I taught creative writing at Rutgers and one of the students said creativity is like making soup – you keep putting adding things.
How much research do you do for your books? Have you found any cool tidbits in your research?
I think it’s good to do a lot of research but to know when to put it away and write. Peter Matthiessen told me some advice on this when he said that you don’t want to let research overwhelm your project. I also had the good fortune to meet E. L. Doctorow – a lunch and interview. He said that you get what you need as you go along. Yes, I think that’s how it works. You do research, you write, you get things along the way. Along with the usual suspects, I now use Youtube for some research – that’s a universe of interesting lectures, programs, travelogues, imagery, etc. Cool tidbits? Let’s see. During research and travels before I wrote my novel Dragon Sutra, I learned that Angkor Wat had much larger human populations than had been thought previously, making it one of the largest civilizations in the ancient world.
What are your hobbies?
I think I have too many hobbies that have both interfered with but also enhanced my writing. They all seem to be related. I’m into travel, yoga, meditation, running and hiking, biking, museums, movies, taking classes and attending lectures at the Jung Foundation or Open Center in NYC, fencing (which I rarely do), tennis and more. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s bad for people who live in their head to not know how to do mechanical stuff – work with their hands. So lately I’ve been getting into working on my building. I’m trying to learn how to put up tile. I like the ancient aura of working with cement and tile.
If you had to choose one person to have dinner with, who would it be? And why?
I can, like most people, get very grandiose if I think of history: Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Buddha, Jesus, Cesar, Akhenaton or the very mysterious Lao Tzu. I teach a section of world history or humanities I each semester. But let’s stay real here. I’d just be very happy to have dinner with Woody Allen. I’ve grown up on his movies. They encouraged a kind of zany humor and philosophical reach. A while back, I was walking near Washington Square and met an actress who was in my very amateurish film, which was part of my dissertation at NYU. She told me she had a small role in the film being shot by Woody Allen, just a few minutes away. I looked up and saw the lights and the people mulling about. I thought: I’d be happy to have even a tiny role in that movie or get to talk to him. I have a somewhat Buddhist view of things and don’t get caught up in images and things we create in our head. So this is just a passing fantasy for me.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
My mom used to read Dr. Seuss stories to me. My dad used to make up stories based on Jack London. When I began writing in earnest in my early twenties, it was probably my curiosity with many subjects that drove me toward writing.
Do you have a ritual when it comes to writing? Example….get coffee, blanket, paper, pen and a comfy place.
I was just thinking about this because I’m writing an essay on creativity for my self-help book, and I came across an interview I did with the poet David Trinidad who told me that he copied the character played by Jack Lemon in some movie who used to light a candle and say “magic time.” Ideally, I like to do some yoga or a walk or read before I write, but I’m not fixated on that. I just wake up and write, or return home at night and write. Because of more chaos, more teaching and being on the board of a few organizations, I’ve had to really train myself to just write and edit wherever I am, no matter the noise level. I write in Barnes and Noble or local cafes and such. I do carry earplugs once in a while though. I try to be like a journalist who just has to write.
For a long time, I used to write at the desk in my apartment, but for some reason, a few months ago I completely changed: I write sitting on my bed now with my computer elevated on a box with a piece of marble across it. It just happened that way. I was thinking too that it’s just more comfortable with all that bed around me. Maybe I was influenced by some articles about the dangers of too much sitting, which is constricting for the legs.
If you could be one of your characters - Who would you be? And why?
I’d like to be Jason, the protagonist in my novel Dragon Sutra. He’s sort of a younger version of me and did something I would love to have done. He went off into Asia just after college graduation and got involved in a romance but also great adventure and mystery. I’ve done a lot of travel, but I regret staying around my home area when I graduated and not venturing out into the world. Adventure and living abroad is a lot better than a bunch of mediocre jobs and goofing off with friends, or even part time teaching, which is what I had done.
Can you please give us a sneak peek at any of your upcoming books?
Just after my novel got published, I wrote a vampire story to complete a collection of stories, followed by a self-help book based on ten chapters: creativity, nature, passion/love, occupation, friends, family, home, travel and the hero’s quest, spiritual traditions and health. It’s loosely based on Taoism but heavy on Positive Psychology, Buddhism, Greek philosophy, Leonardo, holistic health and common sense. I got the idea because last winter I visited Cali, Columbia. My friend mixed up the schedule, so I was stuck at the airport late all night, where I went into the bookstore and found one magazine in English, “Yoga International.” I opened it by chance to an excerpt on Taoism by Huston Smith, who I am friends with and interviewed years ago. It was a Eureka moment. Go with the flow, be natural, don’t look for destinations, maybe the outcome is good maybe not – who knows, and wu wei (take it easy, be mindful), etc.
When you have writer's block how do you break free?
I think I do enough running, yoga and meditation that I don’t suffer from writer’s block. If anything, I teach so much and sometimes lack the time to write enough. I’ve had to develop a more spontaneous way of writing that makes a good thing out of a bad thing: lack of time. Writer’s block is usually based on fear or perfectionism. I fear heights and other things, but not the writing process or product. So I think: just write. We’re not astronauts going into orbit or brain surgeons with a patient whose life is in our hands.
Years ago, I recall reading an essay by a Jungian therapist on writer’s block, and she made the point that the writer is just in a less active state and needs time to build up energy and images. So there’s generally no writer’s block in most cases. Your unconscious might be stalling for a good reason.
How can readers find out more about you and your books?
I have a website, www.RichardMarranca.com, which has some writings and photographs from travels in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Latin America. I’m also giving some upcoming talks in New Jersey, such as at the Cranford Library in early September 2013. I also, along with regular teaching, teach online creative writing from time to time. I also have three online books: Dragon Café (East West Essays); The Sunburst Upanishad (about Alexander the Great in India); and New York Interviews (a collection of artists, writers, scientists and more).
Is there anyone who really mentored or inspired you to keep writing until you were finally published?
Jack Murphy was an early mentor, who died around fifteen years ago. He was a neighbor and a professor who happened to pass my parents house and noticed that it was one of the few in the neighborhood with beautiful trees and bushes and a garden – my father’s doing. So he had that in mind when we happened to meet when I was walking my dog; I got to be friends with his wife and kids too. He brilliantly and selflessly helped me early on as a reader of my stories and as an advisor for graduate school. He was a practical genius and a professor of education, and he showed me and many others the best and quickest path. He was always anxious to help others reach find their path. It all seems easy now, but back then it was unclear.
While wandering around Asia, Jason comes to Cambodia, where he’s drawn into a dangerous underworld and political violence. He and Rachany, a beautiful woman he met at the Russian Market, are pursued by a mysterious foe. They flee across Cambodia, Laos and Thailand through exotic tribes, ancient cities... and end up in Burma’s rebellion. The beauty and luster of passion and love is counterpointed by the darkness of the criminal underworld and the Cambodian holocaust. Will the fateful past destroy Jason and Rachany? Will their affections flower amidst the corruption and violence?