Fr. Barry Martinson on his new novel, ‘Ghost Friends’

Review: Trista di Genova, The Wild East

[Edit: Links and images to Bangkok Books no longer works 2015/1/15]
This deeply metaphysical adventure picks up where Steppenwolf leaves off, reading as if Hermann Hesse himself had spent a few decades of his life as a Jesuit priest in a remote aboriginal mountain village. The scope of this unorthodox work seamlessly — and surprisingly — integrates ‘a host’ of seemingly disparate spiritual disciplines, through exotic travels to Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, at once solving several mysteries of life.

Father Barry Martinson’s Ghost Friends weaves a spell-binding tale that speaks to timeless, universal experience, and tells of hardship, destitution, pain and suffering as well as compassion, understanding, love and ultimately salvation. Definitely a writer to watch, Ghost Friends indicates Martinson has been cultivating a wonderful gift: the ability to touch the world audience. His other works are noteworthy literary and cultural treasures as well, particularly his fascinating account as a new missionary in Taiwan with Orchid Island’s Tao tribe.

THE WILD EAST: Father Barry, some parts of your book deal in an imaginative way with what goes on in the Afterlife, in heaven and purgatory. Are these opinions the same as your church’s teaching?

Fr. Barry: Ghost Friends is a fantasy; it isn’t a treatise on Catholic doctrine. Catholic teaching really does not say too much about what happens in the Afterlife, so there is much room for imagination. In fact, some ideas on the Afterlife expressed in the book might seem closer to Taoist thought than Christian. I was talking to a Taoist priest one day about the book, and she was amazed at how I knew so much about what they believed. I told her I didn’t know anything about their beliefs. I just made the story up as I wrote. But I do think the Afterlife is something we should think about, since that will be the future for all of us.

Father Barry at his church in Chingchuan. Photo: Kloie Picot
THE WILD EAST: The book seems to have more questions than answers. Could it be a point of departure for discussions on the Afterlife?

Fr. Barry: That is my hope – that this book can become the subject of discussion – even debate. Although I am a Catholic – and a priest – I did not want to sermonize, or to tell people what to believe. Rather, I wanted readers to open their hearts and minds to possibilities that perhaps they have never before considered. One of these subjects is the Afterlife. There is a phrase towards the end of the book that says, “If people do not have a clear idea of where they are going, they will not try very hard to get there.” I doubt if many people think much about where they might be going after they leave this life. In an imaginative way, Ghost Friends discusses this issue.

THE WILD EAST: It seems strange that a priest would write a ghost story. Where did your idea for this story come from?

Fr. Barry: It began with a dream about dying I had over ten years ago. I woke up and wrote the first chapter. Then, several years later, I continued the story by writing a page or so each day for Tau Books’ blog. After a while, I began to wonder if — as a priest — I should be writing a novel at all, and especially a ghost story. But then I thought of how Jesus taught — and it was mostly by telling stories. Some of them were very imaginative, too. So I thought it would be all right. Now, when I look back, I don’t even feel like I wrote this book. It just came out of me. Maybe I had a ghost writer…

THE WILD EAST: Do you believe in ghosts?

Fr. Barry: Of course, ha-ha! Why do you think I am holding my press conference on Halloween? Actually, I believe that we never really die – our spirits are simply set free from our bodies. One powerful theme in Ghost Friends is that those who have left this world can “send their spirits” to the living. They still want to help us, and our prayers and remembrance can help these spirits also in their journey to a final destination.

THE WILD EAST: The old priest who appears in the last chapter — is he a reflection of yourself, or of someone you know?

Fr. Barry: There actually was an old priest I met in northern Thailand, who was an expert on Buddhism. I was also influenced by the book and movie, Lost Horizon, which tells of an old priest who lived in Shangri La. But in Ghost Friends, many of the priest’s words come from my own heart, and I believe them.

THE WILD EAST: Are you clairvoyant? Can you see ghosts? If so, how do you help them or how can they help you?

Fr. Barry: No, I am definitely not clairvoyant — like the old priest in the story. But writing Ghost Friends has brought out a part of me I never knew was there. I do believe the spirits of our loved ones can help us – and we them. Here is an example: After my mother died two years ago, a beautiful bird with dark blue feathers and an orange breast began pecking at my office window each morning. It is over two years now, and the bird still comes each morning to greet me. Each time I hear him pecking, I turn around and watch him and feel a kind of peace. So… is the bird bringing me my mother’s spirit to console me? Maybe. I can also help those I know who have passed away by praying that their souls attain peace and everlasting joy. There is a line in Ghost Friends that says, “Our wanting it will make it happen.”

THE WILD EAST: In Ghost Friends, you often use the image of “hands”. For example: The magic touch of Sylvia’s hands, the way Peter uses his hands in making music boxes, Maggie and Peter holding hands as if they were saving each other, the mural of the Helping Hand, the evil Black Hand, the hand of a Buddha statue in the river… Why did you use the symbol of a hand in so many different ways?

Fr. Barry: The idea for the symbol of “hands” came when I was describing Peter and Sylvia in a hotel room together and didn’t want to write something objectionable. So I decided they would “just hold hands”. Then I realized how sometimes when we hold hands, it can be a very powerful experience. So I gave this special gift to Sylvia. Soon it became one of the story’s themes, and my original title for the book was The Helping Hand. But I changed that title when someone told me it sounded too boring, and people might think the story was about a housekeeper.

Besides “hands”, there are other recurring images and themes in the book. I call them “echoes.” In art, when lines echo each other, the painting or drawing becomes stronger. It is the same in writing. Many of the characters experience the same need to love, the same search. They are reflections of each other and they help one another. So the structure of the book is like a spiral, going upward, with many echoes.

Father Barry at the Peacefest Music Festival in November 2010. Photo: Trista di Genova
THE WILD EAST: Since you are a priest, was it difficult for you to describe the feelings for man/woman love?

Fr. Barry: No, that was probably the easiest part. Don’t forget I am a romanticist and have been watching movies and reading novels all my life. Also, the fact you haven’t experienced something doesn’t mean you can’t describe it. That’s the meaning of “fantasy.”

THE WILD EAST: Why is it that in your story most of the characters seem to fall in love with somebody at first sight? Peter and Sylvia, Lucy and Silvio, Maggie and Peter, Emily and Smiley… Don’t you think that is too soon? Instead of coming to have a tender feeling for each other after being together for a while, they fall in love as soon as they meet.

Fr. Barry: I think love at first sight is very exciting and emotional, although it is not always true love. It happened with Edward and Bella in Twilight, and also in Romeo and Juliet. In my book, it fit in well with the idea of “seeing what you want to see.” Love is sometimes an illusion. It might lead to tragedy, as in the case of Peter and Sylvia. But whatever it is – it isn’t boring. I guess I didn’t want to spend that much time on my characters to allow them to slowly fall in love.

THE WILD EAST: About the book cover: Is it a man or a woman? Asian or Western? It’s hard to tell.

Fr. Barry: One theme of the book is that “we see what we want to see.” So the cover is whatever you want it to be. All I can say about this picture is that I painted it in the year 2002 and shortly afterwards it was destroyed. A person wielding a knife ripped the poor picture to shreds in a fit of jealous rage. That event gave me the idea for Peter’s story. I used a photo of the painting for the book cover, because I felt it must have the power to provoke a strong reaction – either good or bad – from the viewer.

THE WILD EAST: Did you draw the pictures for each chapter heading? Do they really represent the characters in the chapters?

Fr. Barry: Most of the small pictures for each chapter were drawn years ago, either in art school, or after doing some kind of meditation. I drew the pictures long before I wrote the book. After I began writing, I realized the pictures seemed to fit the stories, since both came from the same place, deep within me. Most of the pictures are the way I see the characters.

THE WILD EAST: It seems like another theme of the book is “tolerance” for others, no matter what they are like. How does this fit in with traditional religions?

Fr. Barry: I think the founders of most religions preached tolerance, but their followers have not always practiced it. When we embrace any doctrine with the belief that it has all the answers, then there is the possibility we might become close-minded and intolerant of others who think or act differently from what we consider right or “moral.” Ghost Friends is a very open novel and tries to show appreciation and acceptance for all kinds of people – except, perhaps, the intolerant.

THE WILD EAST: Why does much of the story take place in Thailand, Laos, or Myanmar – rather than in Taiwan?

Fr. Barry: In the year 2,000, I took a sabbatical and journeyed through Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries. I studied the Thai and Lao languages. Afterwards, I wanted to write of my adventures, but I thought they would be more interesting in the form of a spiritual journey set within the form of a novel. Why didn’t I set the novel in Taiwan, where I have lived for 40 years? Actually, if you read closely, you will find that the country where Stan lives is never mentioned – so it could be Taiwan.

THE WILD EAST: What were the happy and painful moments in writing Ghost Friends?

Fr. Barry: The happy part was the writing. The painful part was the editing. Since I publish my own books, I also need to figure out the format of the book, the cover and size – everything about its publication. This is the painful part – the agony. But after it is over and everything works out – that is the ecstasy. However, there was one painful moment in writing, and that was the ending. I tried over twenty different endings before I finally decided on my original one. Making a decision is always painful for me.

THE WILD EAST: It looks like the story does not have a final ending. Will there be a sequel – Ghost Friends Two? And how about Jacob? You didn’t tell us about where he went next.

Fr. Barry: Like I said, the ending was difficult. I decided to leave it open to the reader’s imagination, rather than making the end too definitive. Stan is now open to another adventure – so there may be a sequel. If there is, then Jacob will have to come back again in some form or another. Maybe he hasn’t reached heaven yet after all.

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