Sophy Burnham is the author of “A Book of Angels”, “The Art of Intuition”, “The Path of Prayer”, “For Writer’s Only”, “Falling Lovestruck”: The God Poems, “Love Melba”, and many more!!
Janine: What inspired as well as motivated you (Sophy) to become a writer? What “spoke” to your heart that spurred you onto this path?
(courtesy of Kathleen Kelleher)
Sophy: Oh, this is so hard to say. It’s like a catch in the throat and you have to open your heart, your hands (yet still they hold the pen) and write…
When I was a child, to read a book was the “highest” endeavor one could do. My father read books at night, my mother read to us children and to herself, and once we learnt to read, we children read all the time. But something else is required: a talent and then add DRIVE.
I first knew I was a writer when I failed my 5th grade English exam (age 10). The first question was, “Finish this paragraph,” and two blue books and 45 minutes later when the bell rang, I had not finished and I had never gotten to question 2. My teachers all laughed and said, “Oh, she’s going to be a writer.” Luckily they let me retake the exam knocking out question # 1. But that was the first time that I experienced the Writer’s Muse that descends over you, blocking all else out.
Still, to be a “writer” was too big an ambition for me to consider. How do you dare to write, after having read Tolstoi or Dostoievski or George Eliot or Jane Austin or Cervantes, or any of the Immortals.
Anyway, I had nothing to say.
After college I got a job at the Smithsonian Institution and there my first book was published. The S. I. published a book by “ME!” about the exhibits. At the same time I was promoted to director of the Smithsonain’s new department of films and TV, just at the time when (with a new baby) my husband took a job in NYC, and there I learnt that young girls did not write and direct and produce films (I had done 3 for the Smithsonian, some sent to the Venice Film Festival) (You see, a film didn’t carry the same weight as a “book!” So it was easy to do. )
In NYC, therefore, with a new baby, myself a stay-at-home mother, and no recourse to producing films (I could get a job as the researcher to the associate producer’s associate, and I was too proud for that); at that point, by the grace of God, being age 28, I decided to teach myself to write – not by taking classes but by having editors PAY me to learn. I began to free-lance for magazines, where I had very good teachers (editors), and soon I was writing frequently for magazines (still, you see, not as important as writing a book, and therefore possible to attempt and in doing so to learn the craft.)
One day a book editor, having seen a three-part series I had done for New York Magazine, asked me to write a book on the contemporary art world. I turned it down. I had no interest in the art world. Then I went home and thought: “Here I am. I want to be a writer – and someone comes to me with a contract, and I turn him down?” The next morning I called back and said I’d changed my mind.
That’s how I got to be a writer, kicking and screaming, and trying my darndest not to do what I am born to do and what I have always loved doing.
By the way, that book, THE ART CROWD, took 3 years to write and it was so hard that when I finished I made a pact with God: “If this book is not a success, I’m never writing anything again.!” Except it was a New York Times bestseller , and it changed the way the art world worked (temporarily), I could by no stretch of the imagination think it was not a “success.”
Janine: You have written fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, essays and articles, stage plays, radio plays, and continue to write a blog. This is such a wonderfully rich range of material. Do you remember any particular event or experience that began the process for creative expression in a different style/genre? For instance, completing a book and “shifting gears” into writing a play? Or even needing to finish one story/book, and begin another? (Did you ever sense that something “new” was about-to-be-born?)
Sophy: What an interesting question. I think the idea comes in the form it wishes to be. It comes, saying, “I am a play.” “I am a children’s book.” Of course some things (the BEST!) come as an assignment. The radio plays happened when someone from Children’s Radio Theatre called and asked me to write two or three children’s plays for NPR. I had never written a radio play, but it’s not hard. No harder than a theatre play. And a lot easier than a novel. All you do is sit back and watch and write down what you hear. The characters come, demanding voice.
I think the hardest thing for ME is to stick with one genre, and this has been a real disadvantage. Once I learn the genre, I want to break free and do something else (write a play, write a novel, write in non-fiction, write a memoir, write poetry, write a romance). As a consequence my audience can’t count on me to repeat the same thing. Only with the works concerning spiritual matters have I persisted – and even there I shifted between novels and non-fiction. But had I wanted really to be celebrated and “successful” I would have stayed with one genre, one subject. Steven King, Louise Penny, even Kutzui Ishiguru == you can count on each book to be similar enough to the others so you won’t wonder what the hell is going on.
You should know that to avoid one nonfiction book The Landed Gentry which was based on memoir and for which I expected my parents to disown me – I wrote a children’s novel and play –all to avoid writing that book. And one day I woke up from sleep with the firm conviction – like a promise from God – that no one would read this book who should not read it. And in a flurry of activity I finished it in 3 months. It came out to rave reviews . And then all the editors in my publishing house were fired and then there was a flood in the warehouse and most of the books were destroyed. I was very happy. It’s now a rare edition.
Janine: Your most recent book is Love, Alba. Please tell us a little bit of the story-behind-the-story as well as tiny bit about the story itself.
Sophy: I adore this book, my latest. It’s funny. It’s light-hearted, and that’s one reason I like it so much. The novel preceding it, The Treasure of Montégur is a “serious” literary novel, asking how to find hope and joy in the midst of terror and anguish and the pain of simply living on this earth.
But I want to bring joy. So when a fragile plot was offered to me by a good friend, just the glimmering of an opening chapter… I began to sit back and dream. As with all writing, you begin writing, and then you let each sentence carry you along and see where it goes. It’s always a surprise.
This is not to say you don’t work on it. Hard. If you want to be a good writer, rewriting is the trick.
Now I had already published lots of work on angels, both novels and nonfiction. I was known as “the angel lady.” By now I was uncomfortable with that designation – at the same time that I felt humbled by it, and awed.
I began to consider. Why are all romance novels about 20 year olds? I’m not 20. I don’t want to read about a 20 year old. What if my heroine is over 60? (Novel idea! And I can attest from my own life that you don’t lose either your sexuality or desire just from being older.) And what if she falls head over heels in love (to her shame) with a younger man? And what if she thinks he’s in love with her best friend? What would she do?
And then I began to wonder about her cat, because my own cat, Alba, the most beautiful creature that ever stalked this earth had just died, and therefore she was high in my mind. I wanted to write about a cat. Of course a cat can see into dimensions that most humans aren’t aware of – so my narrator, Alba, could act as an angel, or at least have angelic wisdom. And what of the cat’s own love interests, since we know they are the most loving creations (together with dogs and horses) that God ever thought to create, loving not only their two-legged but every sky and moon.
So this witty, observant little cat arrvied to comment on the human condition and to remind us that . . . (guess what?) Everything is going to be all right. Don’t worry. Be happy. Life on this plane of existence on this weird little planet is supposed to be FUN.
I wanted to write a book that would not only be a romance, about love in many different and interesting permutations, but also spiritual (the cat) (the humans) and finally it would make you cry, make you laugh, but in the end leave you feeling happy, so happy that you want to read it all over again. The reader wants to see the movie. She wants the sequel.
Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll write that, too.
Janine: (a) What words other than “writer” or “author” would you use which also describe your life’s work, calling and experience? (i.e. Spiritual Director? Psychic? Intuitive? ???? …) Why these words?
Sophy: Many years ago, even though I was happily married with lovely children and successful as a writer, I began to grieve: “Is this all?” I asked the mirror, and then I began to pray and mourn and sigh about life. I began a long search for God, and for my Soul, though without knowing that was quite what was happening, and one day, IT was shown to me. I wrote about this in THE ECSTATIC JOURNEY
When I came down from the mountain (Machu Picchu)_ I could see light pouring off my hands, and also off all the grasses and animals and other people. I was different.
I had healing touch. I was psychic. I knew things… I studied Buddhism and Hinduism (I had a Hindu guru at the time), and Christianity (still going to the church of my cradle religion –Episcopalian). I took a 3-year course in Spiritual Direction, because I found people coming to me for counsel and advice and I wanted to know I was helping not hurting. And that is why other than “writer” or “author” I wear these other hats.
I openly admit now to being a psychic and medium,* and I give readings to people all over the world, either in person or by phone. How do I know so much? I don’t know. But somehow it is connected with the same threads and silken cords that bind us all together, that allow us to watch the characters of a novel and write down what they do without trying to push them here or there.
I love giving readings. I feel whole when I am enveloped in the LIGHT, when I am in service to God and to others, helping anyone, whether by my work, or in workshops, or through my writing. It’s all the same thing in the end. One by one, drip by drip. Sowing tiny seeds.
* when I work as a psychic, I “know” things. When a spirit or an angel comes theough, then I am working as a medium – a medium between the two world. Often (but not always) a spirit comes from the other side. But they are not our slaves. The same for angels
Janine: (b) Do you remember your first spiritual (or strongly intuitive) experience? What was that like? What impact has that had on your life?
Sophy: It changed everything. I wrote about it in The Ecstatic Journey and won’t duplicate it here. But having said that, of what happened when I was 42, I should add that I have had so many spiritual insights, such constant sense of a Presence walking beside me, guiding and enjoying the world with me, that even as a child I could “see” it. Only I didn’t know then what I was seeing.
Once you have had a mystical revelation, or even a fragile epiphany – you are never the same. I suppose that’s what Evangelicals mean by being “Saved.” Except they limit the wildness of God to one religion, or one great prophet/God/Son, whereas every tree and sunrise and snowstorm and human being and animal and all the ghosts and angels of the spiritual realms, all principalities aver to the constant new ways that God-ness appears around us, and how we, too, are made of this stardust, we too are composed of God-ness, just as Jesus taught.
Janine: Can you name a defining moment or pivot-point which led you specifically from wherever you were in faith and life onto a different path? A time of transition? What have you concluded from that experience? What wisdom can you offer others who are experiencing similar transitions?
Sophy: Well, in my earlier answer to Question 4, I spoke of that moment when looking in the mirror, I asked “Is this ALL?” and began, like the pilgrim of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, to strap on my iron sandals and pick up my iron staff and walk out seeking the Truth and my own soul.
Everyone does it in her or his own way
My wisdom? Take the dare. Don’t be afraid. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will open. And then hang on because you will be on the wildest most adventurous roller coaster ride of your life: It is wonderful. And scary. And brilliant, awe-inspiring, humbling, joyful.. And in the end you realize that where you went out the front door, on this journey, you now enter your own back door., and you are HOME.
You have joy.
Joy is different from happiness. Happiness comes and goes (If I only get X, I will be happy, if I have Y). But even in the midst of anguish and pain, once you have that mystical experience, you vibrate as if strong rod of JOY runs down the middle of your body, never lost.
The energy of love.
(c) 2017 Janine C. Hagan. Spiritual Systems, Inc.
READ Sophy’s newest BLOG about her scary adventure in Barcelona at