Sunday, April 28, 2013

Interview with International Author and Educator Robert Sheppard

Interview with International Author and Educator  Robert Sheppard

It is difficult for me to describe Robert as one man. He is so multi-faceted that description takes on a new meaning. Dr. Robert Sheppard literally took on the world with his latest achievement; Spiritus Mundi. The novel, in two parts, spans political, philosophical, and cultural differences throughout the world. Through it the reader travels deep into the not so touristy elements of countries such as the U.S., Britain, China and Israel. Spiritus Mundi is currently slotted for a film version.

I’ve known Robert as an author for many years. He’s mentored me through poetry, and some short stories. We’ve not always agreed, but that’s a lot of the fun and learning process. If anything, Robert has encouraged me and found a way to help me develop as a writer even when we have not shared a forum.

Robert’s expertise spans international law, literature, multiple languages, and much more. In other words, Robert may hold no punches, but he does know from where his opinions come and how to promote them. He’s an activist for change in the United Nations, pushing for a parliamentary style of leadership and exchange patterned after the European Parliament.

Dr. Sheppard lives between California and China. In China, through an exchange program, Robert teaches International Law and Literature. His expertise in international law, civil rights and the world’s political systems allow him to work with government leaders of China to build important international relationships.

There is much about Robert, but this is an interview of him; not a dialogue about him.

Glenda: Robert, you realize you are making my day in a good way, sorry for goofy rhyme and cliché. You are a surprise for me. When I asked for the interview, I only knew you as Robert my literary friend who wrote an impressive novel, confused me with his particular style of poetry over the years, and has a great sense of humor about it. Now, I have a good deal more understanding how this Kansas/Nebraska farm kid wouldn’t understand your world expressed in poetry.  I looked at your credentials and Spiritus Mundi and must say I’m glad I knew you before. I write in awe of my dear friend Robert an international ambassador of education and change.

My first question now is how and from whom did you become interested in such a demanding but fascinating mission?

Robert: Thank you so much for inviting me to interview with you, Glenda, and it is my honor and pleasure to be here with you. Thanks also for your warm friendship over the years. In terms of “missions,” yes, you could say that Spiritus Mundi, in addition to aspiring to constitute a rich and enjoyable work of literature in and of itself, takes on at least two special “missions.” The first is the promotion of the concept of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly for global democracy, and the second the promotion of the concept of “World Literature” as an emerging cultural institution in the age of the Global Village transcending the national literatures which it has outgrown.
     In terms of my personal background, both missions grew out of my professional life as well as personal interests as they developed over the years. I studied and practiced law and then taught International Law at Peking University and also worked for UNIDO, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization in China, during which time I wrote some influential papers around the year 2000 for the civil society component of the Millennium Forum of the United Nations, focused on the evolution of the United Nations in the new century. These papers were rooted in the successful development of the European Parliament, the first democratic international institution, and essentially proposed the extension of that proven concept from the European Union to a global scale as a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly. In the next decade I discovered that many others were working in the same direction, and joined with them in the Committee for a Democratic United Nations and the Campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, headquartered in Germany, and whose most visible leader has been former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

     At the same time, I had long had a “double” profession, in addition to having studied law, having also studied Comparative Literature in the Ph.D. program at the University of California, Berkeley. You could say that while I enjoyed law, literature was always the “first love of my life.” I had always felt that writing as an author was the “first calling” of my life, and that in a sense the other involvements were a preparation and support for that calling. I had written poetry and short stories all my life, but about three or four years ago I felt it was time to move to a higher plane and write a full-length novel. Out of these disparate interests grew Spiritus Mundi, which was designed to challenge my writing skills and capacity to a higher level, along with the tangential goals of promoting the concept of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly along with the emerging cultural institution of World Literature, which grew out of my prior work in Comparative Literature.  

GlendaSpiritus Mundi is a novel encompassing the life of your main character Robert Sartorius that takes on much of your own background and mission. In Part 2 The Romance, Robert’s son Jack goes to Israel to work on organizing the fundraising telethon to support his father’s mission with the U.N. I think of authors who try to bring their mission into fiction and end up over stating to the point of losing their story. How did you avoid such pitfalls?

Robert:  I’m keeping my fingers crossed on that one! Knock on wood! A work of art treads a fine line when it becomes involved in a social mission or crusade for a particular political or religious undertaking. A work of fiction must create a living world with living characters within it, and if it degenerates into a mere tract of “propaganda,” even for admirable purposes, it runs the danger of being de-natured as a work of art. Oscar Wilde and the Parnassians are remembered for “l’art pour l’art” or “art for art’s sake,” and I would concur that art must have its own intrinsic integrity and not be prostituted for mere didactic or narrowly political ends to live as art. But on the other hand, I have always rejected this point of view when taken to an extreme, as whatever art is it is also a part of life and the human world, and therefore cannot and should not avoid a dimension of “social engagement.” I feel that writers and artists have a social responsibility of some element of leadership in shaping the values and worldviews of the wider community, with the proviso, as mentioned before that their work must retain its integrity as art while doing so. Writers and artists, as Shelly observed, can serve as the “unacknowledged legislators” of humanity, but not in the sense of advocating specific political programs, but rather in shaping the underlying vision and values by which humanity comprehends itself at particular points in time and history.

     The way in which I attempted to avoid the pitfall of falling into didacticism or propaganda was to try to let the characters within the novel live for themselves, and to let their world live for itself. Sartorius, one of the principal characters, semi-autobiographical, is written as a relatively weak character, not imposing his will on the world and the other characters, but relatively afloat and adrift within it. In this I learned from the work of Scott in the Waverly novels.  Waverly in Scott’s novels is a relatively weak and passive young man, a character adrift, rather than a Napoleon imposing his will on history. But this is actually a strength in a historical novel, in that a weak character adrift can serve as a marker for the larger historical currents that sweep him along, and his drift can thus paint a larger portrait of the society and historical forces at work around him. Sartorius is a rather weak and ineffective intellectual, verging on failure and contemplating suicide as he turns fifty, but as such he is ripe to be “swept away” by the hurricane of forces of our modern world, including globalization of every aspect of human existence, and by being so, chart, as a “weather balloon” adrift, the dominant currents of our globalized social atmospherics. As such a “balloon” he also undergoes the constraints and contradictions of Henry James’ “balloon of experience.”  in negotiating the transitions from realism to the realm of the freer imagination, embodied in Book II, “Spiritus Mundi: The Romance,” romance in the Hawthornian sense, that is.

Glenda: I’m a writer who loves to research. However; such an undertaking as Spiritus Mundi makes my head spin thinking about searching out parliaments and cultures so as to maintain factual integrity. For instance, your main character determines to promote an English style Parliament. You must have done an immense amount of research on such a style of governance. The main character’s goal is to bring such a style of governance and encourage democracy in the United Nations.

Can you give us an outline of your research methods for so such complex entities? Did you get to set in on sessions of Parliament?

Robert:  Well, in terms of models, the closer model for the concept of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly would be that of the European Parliament of the European Union, rather than the British Parliament, though the British parliament has long been perceived as the mother of all modern legislatures and parliaments. Working as a professor of International Law in Beijing and also with UNIDO, I naturally had to do an immense amount of research and reading on the working of both the United Nations and the European Union. I also studied at the University of Heidelberg in Germany for two years and during that time learned a great deal about the European Union. So you could say that I was already a “Good European” by the time I approached the wider problem of Globalization in my work in International Law in China. The European Parliament has in turn inspired many regional incarnations, such as the Pan-African Parliament of the African Union, the Parlatino, or Latin-American Parliament and the Arab Parliament of the Arab League. These are already working realities in the various regions of the world, so it was only a matter of time before more and more people would recognize the logic of extending the concept of representative democracy to the global level of the United Nations system as a whole.

So, yes, an immense amount of research would be necessary to embrace this dimension of Spiritus Mundibut I had done it in my professional life as a Professor of International Law a decade before writing the novel. An equal, or greater amount of research was required for the World Literature dimension of Spiritus Mundi, but luckily I inherited a great deal of this from my Ph.D. studies in Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley and its follow-on.

But in the practical sense of the novelist writing a novel, I can tell you that it takes an immense amount of very concrete research to bring to life the concrete details of the world in which the characters must live and move. I had to do a great deal of research on things like the streets, building, parks and milieu of the dozens of cities and nations across the world in which the action of Spiritus Mundi takes place, from Beijing to New York, to London, Moscow, Africa, Jerusalem, Iran---the novel is rooted in a tenacious realism, though it later blossoms beyond it. In that I can say I have become a child of our age in harnessing the power of the Internet to craft the concrete details and dimensions of environments around the world. “Googling” and the Wikipedia have been invaluable in being comprehensive and instantaneously available as I composed on my laptop, so I think the modern writer has resources for practical research available that would awe the most erudite of our forbearers. True, the Internet has the defect of perhaps being “a million miles wide and an inch thick” at its surface, but it also has developed far deeper resources if you learn how to find them and have a good education going into it.

Glenda: I cannot leave out that Spiritus Mundi carries a romantic and even sexual component. You related to me in one conversation that the romance is a natural, human component of your story. There is also a conflict with Sartorius’ son Jack. For other writers, can you relate the importance you found in presenting this side of your main character into the mix of political and international intrigue?

Robert: Well, I grew up as a writer very much in the tradition of D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, both of whom embraced the central importance of sexuality in human consciousness and existence in their works and worldviews. We are all living intellectually in the wake of the Freudian and Darwinian revolutions, and the “sexual revolution” in popular culture since the Sixties. Our sexuality is the life blood of our lives and of our consciousness, not to mention our unconsciousness, collective or individual. In my view of sexuality, common with D. H. Lawrence and C.G. Jung, sexuality is intimately connected with the spiritual dimension of human existence as well---sexuality can alternatively lead to dehumanization and animalization of our beings but sexuality can also lead just as naturally in the direction of the humanization of our natural and biological impulses, their civilizing, and even to their spiritualization, as Jung observed.

     In regards to sexuality I take as a starting point that it is a natural part of our lives and should be positively embraced in all dimensions of our existence---that it is a necessary and wholesome part of our individual and collective mental health. That is not to deny that it has its chaotic, selfish, destructive and socially disruptive side as well, which society has difficulty managing, which it always must, but it is important that it should not be irrationally repressed in the individual or the society at large, as Freud and Jung have taught us.

     Thus, as the saying goes, “War is too important to be left to the Generals,” we can also observe that sexuality is too important to be left to doctors, psychologists, biologists or “sexologists.” It is the living root of our individual selves and of our spirituality as well. As such the sexual lives of the characters in fiction are a vital dimension of their beings, and a vital dimension for judging the viability, mental health and value of the worldviews of their authors. Hollywood and Washington have long judged their projects asking the question “Will it play in Peoria?” and writers similarly have tested their worldviews by asking “Will it play between the sheets?” In Spiritus Mundi sexuality is linked to the spiritual lives of the characters, but also to the “life force” which drives human evolution and the collective unconscious of the human race, necessary to its survival. The progressive humanization, civilization and spiritualization of our most primal sexual animal impulses in the forms of love, family, community and communion is the story of the progress of our individual lives in microcosm and of our civilizational lives in macrocosm.

 Glenda: Finally, can you give us a look inside the man Robert Sheppard?

 Robert:  Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!---as I recall one your fellow Kansans once sagely remarked on a certain occasion.  Or I can have my doctor send you my latest X-ray if you like! ……I don’t know how to answer such a question exactly----“the man Robert Sheppard” continues to be, like his writing “a work in progress” with many contradictions, frustrations, inadequacies, irrationalities and inscrutable impulses coexisting with and ever evolving beside and within the socially and literarily observable persona. The ancient Greeks had to cut into stone in their temples the admonition “Know Thyself” precisely because it was so hard, perhaps impossible to accomplish---we knowing ourselves ever “but in a glass darkly.” Perhaps sometime in the future I will meet and get to know that man behind the curtain, “the man Robert Sheppard”-----it is likely we may become friends-----it would be natural-----after all we have a lot in common, and I may even learn a lot from him if we can somehow learn to rub along and tolerate each other---- we may even, at the end of our little dramatic offering, ascend in a homeward-bound balloon together, or as in the ending another film, as in Bogie’s Cassablanca stroll off into the mist-filled night arm-in-arm together, with one or the other observing “You know, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship!”

Oh, how I wish that I could have had this interview on a public stage with Robert, shaking hands with my dear friend and getting to know him “through the glass (a bit less) darkly.”  That is one of the downfalls of written interviews, I ask the question, he answers the questions I ask, and I would love to ask so much more about the answers. This is true of all authors I interview, but it also leaves my readers with a chance to desire more knowledge of the interviewee. Reading Spiritus Mundi by Robert Sheppard reveals the intricate workings of a very philosophical mind. As he said there is a fine line that an author must walk when writing fiction with a mission in the story. I’m reminded of Plato’s dialogues which are today left for us often to understand through someone else interpretation. The thing is that Plato did write dialogues which today we might call short stories. That does not mean that we cannot come to some understanding of Plato’s way of reasoning. Perhaps he didn’t think he knew himself any better than Robert or me for that matter.

This form allows me to introduce Robert Sheppard, his book Spiritus Mundi, and a glimpse of his passions. I hope you enjoyed reading this ‘dialogue’. Then you can come to your conclusions by reading Robert’s book Spiritus Mundi.  

Please find links to Robert’s website and to his book below.

Spiritus Mundi Book I, The Novel:
Spiritus Mundi Book II: The Romance:

Spiritus Mundi Book I: The Novel on Amazon:
Spiritus Mundi Book II: The Romance on Amazon: