Virtual Book Tour: Interview with Memoir Author Eliezer Sobel

Eliezer Sobel is the author of The 99th Monkey: A Spiritual Journalist's Misadventures with Gurus, Messiahs, Sex, Psychedelics, and Other Consciousness-Raising Adventures (Santa Monica Press, Feb. '08), Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That is Heartbroken, which was the winner of the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, and Wild Heart Dancing. His short story, Mordecai’s Book, won New Millennium’s First Prize for Fiction, and his articles and stories have appeared in the Village Voice, Tikkun Magazine, Quest Magazine, Yoga Journal, New Age Journal, and numerous other publications. Sobel was the Editor-in-Chief of The New Sun magazine in the 70s and was Publisher and Editor of the Wild Heart Journal more recently. He has led intensive creativity workshops and retreats at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, the Open Center in New York City, the Lama Foundation in New Mexico, and Elat Chayyim Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut. Sobel lives in Richmond, Virginia with his wife, Shari Cordon, and three cats: Squarcialupi, Peanut and Plum.

About the Book:

The 99th Monkey is the story of one man’s utter failure to get enlightened, despite over 30 years of trying. Eliezer Sobel invites readers along on what is both a hilarious and astounding journey through the spiritual, New Age and Human Potential movements of the last 35 years, providing an insider’s view that is at once eye-opening, deeply moving, and completely entertaining.

From encounters with enlightened beings, saints and madmen, to ingesting a powerful shamantic brew in the forests of Brazil at all-night ceremonies; from 40-days alone on a mountaintop, to 60 hours in hotel ballrooms at crash courses in consciousness; from the ashrams and gurus of India to the rebbes in Jerusalem and a ten-day Zen retreat at Auschwitz, there were very few extremes to which Sobel did not go in his life-long quest for self-realization. ("Don't even ask about the 'Tush Push,' which was a partner exercise I did during a Human Sexuality Workshop. Or the very obese female therapist who sat on my head for twenty-five minutes at Esalen Institute so I could re-experience being smothered by my mother."

Although he claims to come out at the end feeling pretty much like the same guy as when he started, and while he suggests that bookstores create a new category for his book alongside the Self-Help section to be called "No Help Whatsoever," The 99th Monkey is actually a modern-day hero's journey that contains its own unique blend of wisdom and insight into what it really means to be a human being.

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Welcome to The Writer's Life, Eliezer. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?

I learned to write in second grade, at age 7, so that would mean I’ve been writing for 49 years, but I didn’t really start writing seriously until the following year, when I published an op-ed piece in my brother’s mimeographed elementary school newsletter, in which I publicly accused him of stealing my socks.

Can you please tell us about your book and why you wrote it?

“The 99th Monkey” is a humorous, spiritual memoir. I have lived a rather unusual, and by mainstream standards, outrageous life, and people were constantly telling me to write a book about my adventures, so I finally wrote The 99th Monkey to get them to stop bugging me all the time! It’s sort of a male version of Eat, Pray, Love, except I don’t eat much or fall in love. I do pray a bit, but in the end I utterly fail to get enlightened. The title refers to the 100th Monkey idea, which suggests that a “critical mass” of people—100, say—is required before a tipping point is reached for a paradigm shift to occur in a culture. If you don’t get the 99th person on board, though, you never reach your critical mass and it spoils things for the whole planet. So the book is essentially a history of my resistance to self-transformation, thus gumming up the works for everyone else.

What kind of research was involved in writing “The 99th Monkey”?

Fortunately none, apart from straining my brain to remember the details of my 30+ years of being a professional spiritual seeker. That’s the best part of writing autobiographical material—it’s very light on the research! Ironically, as I mention in the book, one publisher held on to the manuscript for over a year, telling me every few months or so that “We really like it, but we’re still not sure.” I finally couldn’t take it any longer and demanded a decision, and they turned it down, saying, “We decided that the central character’s story just doesn’t hang together.” The central character’s story? Uh, the central character would be me, this is a memoir. So now I have to live with the fact that my story doesn’t hang together. It’s not easy.

How much input did you have into the design of your book cover?

Quite a bit. Even though my publisher opted not to use the painting of a Jewish-Buddhist-Hindu-Christian-New Age monkey that I submitted for the cover, he included me every step of the way as ideas were tossed around and developed. And I loved what we finally agreed to use.

Has it been a bumpy ride to becoming a published author or has it been pretty well smooth sailing?

It has been erratic. I published a short story in a literary journal (Epoch) in the early 70s, at the age of 23 or so. My teacher at the New School in New York at the time was Sidney Offit, a well-known author as well as a former president of the Author’s Guild. Professor Offit was very enthusiastic about my work and said he would like to introduce me to an agent. After reading my next classroom submission, however, he decided I wasn’t quite ready, so that never happened. Thirty years later, I published my first novel, Minyan, which won the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, first among 400 entries. I sent it to Offit, who called me immediately, and was still very enthusiastic about my work!

In those years between, I published many, many non-fiction articles, and several non-fiction books. For the first one I received a flat fee of $1000 to quickly write an as-yet-nonexistent book that had already sold thousands of copies through ads in the National Enquirer. It’s a funny story you can read more about here: https://www.eliezersobel.com/goodluck.html

Then in the early 90s, my agent, Phil Pochoda, managed to get Simon & Schuster, Bantam, and St. Martin’s into a bidding war for my book, Wild Heart Dancing, and for an unknown author, I wound up receiving a great advance from S&S ($26k), and was promised all sorts of PR. Within weeks of signing the contract, however, the editor who had made the purchase left Simon & Schuster, and was soon followed by her assistant, and there was nobody left in the company who even knew me or the book, and it became just a contractual obligation for them to fulfill, with no support or PR whatsoever.

Phil Pochoda retired soon after, and for my novel Minyan, I was fortunate to secure the representation of Gunther Stuhlmann, a well-respected agent in the world of literary fiction, and he felt confident about placing my book. I was thrilled, naturally. And then Gunther died. Next I got Minyan into the hands of a big-time Hollywood agent, who called me after reading the first chapter and was very excited and enthusiastic, and mentioned the phrase “major motion picture.” She told me she would take the manuscript with her on vacation to Greece to finish reading it. In under two weeks I received a generic postcard—not even a picture on the front—on which she wrote tersely, “I cannot work with this material. I am discarding the manuscript here.” I imagined my characters floating in the Aegean sea, thrashing and flailing about.

So all in all, I would say it has been a bumpy ride.

For this particular book, how long did it take from the time you signed the contract to its release?

About 18 months.

Do you have an agent and, if so, would you mind sharing who he/is is? If not, have you ever had an agent or do you even feel it’s necessary to have one?

I have an agent now, (Alison Picard) who worked very hard to try to sell Minyan after Gunther died, but as it turned out, I wound up getting it published on my own through winning a literary contest. And Alison opted not to represent The 99th Monkey, thinking that memoirs are too hard a sell these days, so I placed that one myself as well. She is currently trying to sell Minyan as a paperback.

Do you plan subsequent books?

I’m slowly trying to write about my Mom, who has Alzheimer’s. It’s a difficult subject for me, and slow going. At first I thought, “This has already been done many times,” and then I realized, “Yes, but not about MY mother, and not by ME!” I’m also working on a sequel to Minyan, the ongoing saga of my fictional alter-ego, Norbert Wilner. When I read all of Kerouac’s work and discovered that most of it featured characters based on all his friends and himself, I decided that that would be my approach to fiction as well.

Are you a morning writer or a night writer?

Are those the only choices? What about 2:25 pm? Actually, I am notoriously inconsistent. Early morning, late at night, mid-day, often not at all. I have never followed the advice to set aside a regular time each day for writing, or to consider it like a job that one goes to everyday no matter what. I only write when I have something to say, and that just doesn’t seem to be the case on a daily basis. That’s why I created a “Mostly Silent Blog”!

If money was no object, what would be the first thing you would invest in to promote your book?

Well if money was really no object, I suppose I could offer $1,000,000 in cash, tax-free, to every new reader of the book. I think that would work.

How important do you think self-promotion is and in what ways have you been promoting your book offline and online?

I’ve learned the hard way that self-promotion is crucial. I watched my last two books slowly sink into oblivion as I waited around for the call from Oprah. I’m not letting that happen this time, so I have been very engaged with learning how to promote on the Internet, as well as setting up public appearances.

Any final words of wisdom for those of us who would like to be published?

The most disturbing epiphany I’ve had about publishing is that while it very exciting to have a book accepted by a publisher and to see it in print, that excitement is usually good for about two weeks to a few months at best. People dream about getting published, not realizing that the real mountain to climb doesn’t even come into view until after you’ve published, and that is the mountain of actually getting the book known, and read, and sold. There are literally hundreds of thousands of new titles published in the U.S. every year. I get knots in my belly every time I walk into Barnes & Noble.

Thank you for coming, Eliezer! Would you like to tell my readers where they can find you on the web and how everyone can buy your book?

Well, first they can read the prologue online to see if it grabs them: http://www.the99thmonkey.com (That site will direct them to AMAZON if they choose to buy it, enabling me to earn approximately .000792% of each sale!)

For more about me and my other books and articles, see

http://www.eliezersobel.com

And there’s also my Mostly Silent Blog:

http://the99thmonkey.wordpress.com

Thanks!

Editor's Note: Because we are having problems with our comment box showing up on the main page, please click here to leave a comment. Thank you!

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THE 99TH MONKEY VIRTUAL BOOK TOUR '08 will officially begin on August 4, 2008 and continue all month. You can visit Eliezer's tour stops at www.virtualbooktours.wordpress.com in August!

As a special promotion for all our authors, Pump Up Your Book Promotion is giving away a FREE virtual book tour to a published author with a recent release or a $25 Amazon gift certificate to those not published who comments on our authors' blog stops. More prizes will be announced as they come available. Winner will be announced on August 31 at www.pumpupyourbookpromotion.wordpress.com!


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