Iseult: Joseph, thank you so much for talking with me today. It’s been a blast celebrating your writing all month long, and it’s wonderful to get to learn more about your inspiration and process.
Virtue’s End is a masterpiece. It’s both an exciting fantasy and a deeply personal tale, and it’s an epic poem! What inspired you to write it?
Joseph: That is very kind of you to say, Iseult. I am a great believer that nothing is written “by” me but “through” me. In other words, my angel was the author, I am just the vessel for its transmission. True creativity is therefore not so much a process of speaking but listening, not of output but input; I believe that when we create, we should strive towards receptivity to the deeper wisdom of the soul rather than the conscious effort of the ego. The ego only creates ugliness. The soul creates beauty, and beauty is what we need, what nourishes us on the spiritual level just as food nourishes our bodies. I am going to be talking about this process—plus my strategies for opening up to this input—more in an upcoming non-fiction book I’m working on entitled The Divine.
Virtue’s End, perhaps more than any other book I’ve worked on, came out of this “transmission” process. I had reached a rock-bottom moment in life. Everything seemed to be going wrong and I could no longer write. At the very nadir of my despair, I went on a trip to Glastonbury. Glastonbury was somewhere my parents had taken me as a child and I remember falling in love with it, entitling it as “the Magical City”, a place where magic still lived. I revisited it as an adult out of some deep unconscious compulsion—encouraged by my wonderful wife to heed this calling!
It really is a magical place. Little did I know how right my childhood self had been! It would be tedious to describe all that happened there, but the key moment pertaining to Virtue’s End was when I entered the holy gardens of the Chalice Well. The place is a little Eden. Everything is unbelievably fertile and alive there. I sat in a little hut and began to pray—I needed guidance, reassurance, anything! I could not see a way forward in my life.
This prayer was very different to any prayer I had previously uttered because rather than pleading with the Lord I began to bargain with Him. I said, “I will give up everything: sanity, health, this dream of success, all of it. I’ll live as a beggar. But in exchange, I just want to feel you now.”
To my utmost terror, surprise, and awe, an angel then appeared before me. What happens next, you are familiar with, because itbecame the opening scene of Virtue’s End! Or thereabouts. G. K. Chesterton once said, “The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to be credible.” Reality is more magical and beautiful than we could ever imagine. The angel showed me this, the error of my ways, and so much more. I left Glastonbury with a renewed sense of purpose. However, the actual writing of Virtue’s End actually did not begin until some time later. I had to kind of “rebuild” myself after my encounter with the angel. I totally pivoted my life. I cut away a lot of things and started up new practices. One of these practices was a renewed interest in poetry. I had sworn off poetry for six years after becoming sick of it through my university experience. So much of modern poetry felt meaningless: modernistic, nihilistic bilge promoting cheap zeitgeists and pretentious intellectualism. However, rediscovering real poetry, the poetry of the great masters, I realised I had been suppressing my own inner current of poetic expression. This led me back to Spenser’s Faerie Queene, an epic poem I had enjoyed so much as a young man.
After I re-read it—and of course there are weird parallels here because Glastonbury is so tied to the King Arthur mythos, which is also explored in The Faerie Queene—I had this weird feeling that Spenser’s poem needed to be finished. That the modern world was crying out for it. The six Aristotlean virtues that Spenser had left unexplored seemed so pertinent to our modern era—for example, “truth” was one virtue he left unexplored, yet how relevant is that now in our age of so-called “post-truth”. These ideas arose from a deep place and once the central concept of finishing The Faerie Queene took hold I could not escape it.
Initially I tried to write the six volumes in prose but that failed miserably! I realised that the only way to tell this story was in poetic form because only through that medium could I cut to truth. It didn’t matter what the modern poetry trends were. It didn’t matter what was financially sensible. I had to start following the angel and doing seemingly irrational and illogical things to discover my true meaning and purpose.
Iseult: Wow, Joseph, that’s incredible. Thank you for sharing such a personal story.
Did you find the form of the epic poem difficult to master? How did you prepare for writing in this style?
Joseph: As a formalist and classical poet—a deep believer that form creates beauty—I next tried to write using the Spensarian stanza. This is the poetic form Spenser created specifically for his epic. It is a nine-line stanza and extraordinarily demanding. Though I was able to achieve moments of clarity with it, I found that overall it reduced the pace of the storytelling to a crawl. The deliberately antiquated form of English Spenser chose to pen his epic in furnished him with far more rhymes than Modern English, mainly because syntactically he was able to use what are now known as “archaic inversions”, aka leaving verbs until the end of the sentence. In modern English this sounds very forced indeed!
The key, therefore, became to capture the spirit and soul of Spenser’s epic without having to constrain the narrative with his precise form. Spenser himself wrote about contemporary and personal events through the veil of allegory but his allegorical framework would perhaps not translate well to a modern audience. I therefore had one key contemporary inspiration in the form of my father—a sensational poet who has written an epic, HellWard, about his recovery from cancer. Hellward is, as well as being deeply personal, a phenomenal homage to Dante Allighieri. This, in a way, gave me a model of using classical structures and fantastical scenes but overlaying them with the deep pathos of autobiography. I should also point out some of the most fantastical moments in Virtue’s End are indeed the ones most based in reality!
Form wise, I decided that the poem had to be written in iambic—the essential component of English poetry—but I allowed myself flexibility with the line length and the regularity of the rhyming. I borrowed a lot from John Milton and T. S. Eliot in finding a middle ground between form and expression. Eliot, at times, steered too far into the “wasteland” of free-verse (no doubt intentionally) abandoning rhythm altogether—but some of his rhymes are sublime. Milton finds a great balance of rhythm and flexibility—breaking his iambic rhythm to create organic-sounding dialogue but also using it to create those moments of epic grandeur—however, Milton hated and abhorred rhyme! So, between the two, I tried to find a middle ground of something that sounded “epic” but wasn’t arcane. Yeats was also an inspiration because he arguably embodies the perfect intersection of these two polarities—the only problem is he never wrote an official “epic” poem, only lyrics that were epic in concept and execution if not length.
Now, in my description of this, it sounds like I figured all this out intellectually. What actually happened was all my conscious and deliberate experiments with form failed tragically. Then, one night, I woke up at midnight on the dot—the moon was full outside—and I ran to my writing desk with lines running through my head: Knife to the bone, thus the cut is made / the cadaver’s opened like a quim / and in that seam pour all my hate. It was like the words were being cut into my brain. When I read the lines back, I realised that this was the form I had to use: iambic but loose, using para-rhyme to achieve harmony and meaning but without settling into the doggerel rhyme-schemes that mar bad formal poetry.
When I say “transmission” a lot of people believe I’m advising them to just sit back and wait for the Muse, that creativity can’t be taught or nurtured. This isn’t quite what I mean. There is a paradox we have to embrace. Yes, there is a Muse, a divine spirit that must speak for us to write something truly inspired. But we also have to invoke that Muse and practice so we are in readiness for their imminence. I could never have gotten to the point of that inspiration if I hadn’t performed all those failed experiments beforehand and also known a great deal about poetic form. As you say, all that work was preparation for the moment it all came together in a single flash.
One bit of evidence I found that I was truly “channeling” something is that if you look at the form of the first line of Virtue’s End, there is a break in the rhythm in the middle of the line (what is called a “caesura”) almost as if the line has been cut with a knife! This is the poetic technique of mimesis where form mirrors content. Again, this isn’t consciously decided upon, I am not clever enough for that! The meaning emerges because it emanates from the realm of ideal forms.
Milton does something similar in the opening of Paradise Lost,which is “Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit / of that forbidden tree…” In other words, the story is about Adam and Eve and the “first disobedience” of all Creation, and in the first line of his poem there is a disobedience to the form of iambic!
Prose can achieve these effects but not to the same level and not as frequently, and it became clearer and clearer as I worked on Virtue’s End that poetry was the only way forward.
Iseult: Hellward is an amazing work, and I’m not surprised it influenced you. I love when hard work combines with the subconscious and Divine assistance to produce something great. When a piece of work comes together and connects in ways you never imagined, it is awe inspiring.
I love that you revisit or continue older works, such as Beowulf in Grim, The Kalevala in Across The Bitter Sea, and The Faerie Queene in Virtue’s End. Is there any work that’s top of your wishlist to add the Joseph Sale touch?
Joseph: Thank you! Unconsciously this is something I have been doing for some time, as you’ve observed, but I genuinely did not realise quite what a pattern it was until recently! In fact, if I really look back, my first proper go at writing a novel was a re-telling of the German epic of The Nibelungenlied, which is an underrated and truly astonishing tragedy of epic proportions. One of my all-time favourite heroes makes an appearance in it: Volker of Alsea, the mysterious warrior-bard.
I truly believe that we must actually look back—not forward—to find the true and deep wisdom. The ancients really did have it all figured out, or else they were much closer to the source of divine inspiration than we are, possibly because they had less noise in their lives drowning everything out.
In terms of a wish-list, then, I would have loved to have written a poem or novel based on Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning, but Stephen King has already done with not only one book but seven! Though I did get to do my own version of it—to a degree—with The Tower Outside of Time. There is even one place where Browning is directly alluded to.
I’ve also been toying for a long time with working on a reimagining of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus.
Dr Faustus is one of my all-time favourite plays, and I saw an astounding version of it a few years ago in London with Kit Harrington in the lead (he was sensational). The thing about Marlowe’s work is it contains flashes of genius but there is also a lot of filler and dated content too, which is actually what makes it interesting to adapt because there is room for growth and for response. I adore Shakespeare but I don’t really see what I could add—he is the master, after all! However, Marlowe’s play contains moments of transcendental brilliance, but also some whacky and erratic stuff that is totally out of sync. There’s a nucleus there that I think could be expanded and built on.
I’ve tried a few times and never quite managed to successfully adapt the play. At one point I was going to make a low-budget film version of it with a friend of mine—the screenplay is still locked away in my drawer. I keep coming back to the play, I think because it speaks to me on a deep level, particularly the relationship between Dr Faustus and the demon Mephistopheles. I think at some level my fascination with the play precipitated my involvement in magic. Maybe now I am better equipped to adapt it? Maybe I’ll try doing so in another medium? Who knows!
Iseult : Now I’m even more excited to read The Tower Outside of Time!
I also love Dr Faustus and have pages of notes of my own take on the story. I think it hits at a universal truth that is endlessly adaptable. I hope to one day read or see your Dr Faustus adaptation.
What are your comfort, go to reads that you’ve reread lots of times?
Joseph: It’s quite rare for me to re-read something; so when I do, it’s because the work is damn good! The Lord of the Rings is definitely one book I keep coming back to. I’ve read that three times now and each time it gets more powerful and more meaningful. I’ve also read The Faerie Queene twice through—that is a seriously epic journey to undertake. But despite how daunting it is, I almost feel like I could do it again, there is so much brilliance in it. Spenser’s imagination—his mind—was just on another level. He is known as the Prince of Poets for a reason.
There are also a few non-fiction books I regularly return to for wisdom and guidance even if I don’t read them cover to cover. One of these is Thick Face, Black Heart by Chin Ning Chu who is one of the six heroes in Virtue’s End. That is a book of profound insight—I recommend it to everyone.
Iseult: The Lord of the Rings is one of my go to books as well. I must check out Thick Face, Black Heart.
If you were offered a deal to adapt one of your books, would you prefer to see it turned into a play, film or tv series?
Joseph: What a question! I think given the fantastical nature of so much of my work a play would be very difficult medium for adaptation, except maybe for a book like The Meaning of the Dark where the entire thing could be rendered as a monologue, so that is probably out, as much as I love theatre. I think most of my books would work best adapted as a TV series, especially as my books interconnect and sprawl! I can see now that some ambitious director could pull off a really astonishing adaptation of The Illuminad over multiple seasons! A man can dream!
Iseult: That would be some epic television! I’d really love to see your interconnected universe as a tv series. I think the quality is there in television production to do your worlds justice.
What can we expect from you next? What are you working on at the moment?
Joseph: This is a question every author loves! Thank you for asking. My book The Tower Outside of Time, the final book in The Illuminad sequence, comes out April 15th. I’m really excited—and nervous—about this one. Endings are hard. I hope I have done the world and characters justice.
I’m also working on a non-fiction book, The Divine, as I mentioned. This will be particularly interesting for my writing and editing friends. There is more information in there about the Five Act Structure than I have ever printed publicly before, plus some (hopefully) deep insights into the creative act. Writing a craft book has been on my mind for a while but I had to have the experience of Glastonbury and Virtue’s End in order to realise that ambition.
Lastly, I am writing a new novel now that I am very excited about. I can’t say anything more about it though as it is a big fat secret project!
Thank you again, Iseult, for the month of Joseph Sale and interviewing me. You rock!
Iseult: I’m very excited by all of those projects, and I look forward to reading them.
Thank you, Joseph. You are very welcome.