The Big Idea: Graham Hancock
It’s probably inaccurate to call the writing of fiction “restful” (says the man currently trying to write a new novel), but can it offer a respite? From Graham Hancock, it just may. Hancock is best known as a non-fiction author of highly controversial historical books, and controversies, while sometimes invigorating, have their downside as well. So, when Hancock turned his hand to fiction with his novel Entangled, did the experience offer him a break from that controversy — and a new enthusiasm for writing? Let’s let Hancock spin the tale from here.
Entangled is my first novel, a work of science fiction and fantasy adventure utterly different from anything I’ve ever written before. At its heart are Ria and Leoni, two brave young women, living at opposite ends of history, who are brought together by supernatural forces to do battle with a demon who travels through time. My heroines don’t need a “time machine”. They encounter one another, and the demon, by travelling out of body in altered states of consciousness induced by the consumption of powerful psychedelic drugs.
Before I tell you where this big, strange idea came from I need to give you some backstory.
I’ve been a non-fiction writer all my working life, starting out in mainstream journalism in the early 1970’s and finding my way into books from there. I was always heavily facts-based, even if – as I increasingly came to define my role – I was giving a different take on the facts from the mainstream. An example is my 1989 book Lords of Poverty: The Freewheeling Lifestyles, Power, Prestige and Corruption of the Multi-Billion Dollar Aid Business. It won an H.L. Menken Award honourable mention for an outstanding book of journalism. It was entirely fact based, but it took the same facts the aid industry was using to blow its own trumpet and showed that there was a whole other story lying underneath them — a story not of ‘help’ and ‘kindness’ but of corruption, waste, greed and ego on the part of the donor organisations. Lords of Poverty was the first book really to question foreign aid. A lot of people in the aid business got very angry with me about it, but it struck a chord and is still in print more than twenty years later in the US.
So the same basic approach that I brought to Lords of Poverty I also brought to all my later non-fiction books on historical mysteries such as The Sign and the Seal, Fingerprints of the Gods and Heaven’s Mirror – questioning established facts, reinterpreting them and trying to bring new data to the table. Typically I would refer to a thousand-plus other books for each of my big books of non-fiction, which were all fundamentally works of synthesis. If there was anything truly original in them it lay in creating a novel synthesis, and in asking new questions about the data that perhaps hadn’t been given much thought before.
You should see my office any day when I’m writing non-fiction. Dozens of books relating to the chapter I am working on that day are scattered, open, all over my desk and floor. There are little yellow tags in the pages of these books that remind me of some nugget of information hidden on page 243 or 867. As I write I am constantly inserting footnotes (and I’ve learned that if you don’t do the note, at least in abbreviated form, right away than you can never find it again).
It is a constant fact-grinding operation and after three decades of this I have reached a point where, frankly, I’m exhausted by it. Relentless academic attacks on my non-fiction, most ferocious in the UK, completely wore me out and also forced me to start writing in a more and more boring way. Anticipating every nit-picking critique, and knowing how even the slightest mistake would be spun as ‘fraud’ and ‘bad faith’ by the mainstream, I started bullet-proofing my arguments even as I made them, surrounding them with ever larger amounts of facts, observation and data, trying to iron out every weakness in advance. The result — Underworld. It’s a pretty good book in my opinion. I’m proud of it. Proud of the risks my wife Santha and I were prepared to take to do the dives and bring back the evidence – Santha’s photographs being crucial. Proud of the mass of new data, not previously published, that it unveils. But it is close to 800 pages long and the architecture of facts, and the defensive posture I was forced to adopt, means that many readers have found it hard to wade through it.
As I writer I do, above all, want to be read. So what I gradually came to realise was that the need to respond to scholarly attacks on my work was actually making me more and more unreadable! I began to yearn to get back to the place of adventure and daring I was in when I wrote Fingerprints of the Gods and didn’t give a damn about what the academics thought or said.
But it gradually became clear to me that the intellectual climate within which I must work meant that I could never get back to that place again — in non-fiction in this field. I also came to the conclusion, after Underworld, that I had done everything I could do, as an individual, to shed light on the possibility that there might be a great forgotten episode of high civilisation lost in the night of time. I began to be concerned that if I stayed totally focussed on that subject then I would end up repeating myself and doing nothing new.
It was time to move on.
The result, still non-fiction, was Supernatural. The same reference-based approach reinterpreting existing ‘facts’, and another very long book, but this time not focussed on the lost civilisation mystery.
But something amazing happened to me while I was researching and writing Supernatural. I had my first encounters with the Amazonian shamanistic brew Ayahuasca, the Vine of the Dead, and these encounters completely changed my view of just about everything. The experiences filled me up with a new and invigorating creative urge and I began to think more and more about taking a long sabbatical from non-fiction and taking my narrative gifts — such as they are — in the direction of fiction. What was there to lose, I asked myself, when my critics already described my factual books as fiction?! Besides some facts are SO strange that maybe the only way they can ever be explored properly is through the imagination.
So I thought over this for a long while after my first encounter with the brew in 2003. I have continued to drink Ayahuasca several times a year since then, and have now logged more than thirty journeys. In 2006 I participated in a series of five Ayahuasca sessions over a period of two weeks in Brazil. Before we began the work — and Ayahuasca is WORK — I set an intent. It was to find inspiration for a novel.
The sessions gave me the answer. In a series of intense visions I saw my two main characters, Ria in the Stone Age, Leoni today, entangled in a great cosmic battle of good against evil. Some specific scenes and plot elements presented themselves to me. Others I received — downloaded — but could not immediately bring to conscious recollection. And I received a strong instruction from the blessed spirit of Aya and that instruction was: “WRITE IT. WRITE IT NOW!”
I started writing straight away. It was very slow at first. It took me a year to get eighty pages down to show to my editor. But fortunately he loved it, and bought it on the spot and the result, Entangled, I now place before my readers.
Each day of writing this book (and I am writing the sequel right now) has been a wonderful adventure for me. Because I downloaded the whole thing from the visionary realm I have not worked with any kind of outline but just sit at my desk to write every morning not knowing at all where the story is going to go. It’s all fresh and new to me, discovering events only as my characters discover them, and tremendous fun to do.
And I’m realising more and more that, as a vehicle for exploring extraordinary ideas, fiction has a huge degree of latitude and license that our society simply does not allow to non-fiction authors. And no footnotes! No quotations from learned sources! No angry academics waiting to accuse me of fraud! Just the challenge of the blank screen every morning and the adventure of finding out what I am going to put there today…
This is not say I will never write non-fiction again. I certainly hope I will. But I think I’ve earned a break and hope my readers will come with me on this new adventure.