Q. “The Phoenix Year” is a fascinating book, when did you decide to write this story? And why?
DLB: It was 1977, we were living in Switzerland and I was working at UNCTAD, and the price of crude oil quadrupled after OPEC gained control of world oil prices. The plight of the developing countries was dire and there was a huge debt built up that seemed impossible to pay off (this beget the Club of Paris debt negotiations that went on for years). I had always written fiction for fun, but I set out to tie all these events together in a single novel about a group of rich men who want to game the stock market. I finished this version, well before world processors were readily available, in Washington when we came home in late 1978. I finished it, was able to get an agent, and then nothing happened. About ten years after, around 1987, the DOW average indicator fell by 600 points in a single day, swings of 300 points on a DOW that stood at around 3000, suggested another story line. Traders were reading different tea leaves than economists who saw the economy as sound. Perhaps data was being tampered with. I pulled out the novel, but by then the story line had changed. The novel in roughly its present form came from that.The actual plot of the original novel is lost to me and to the world. Again it was mainly an exercise in futility. I could not get an agent. I put it away (electronically) until 2001 when there was another economic crisis. This time I revised it, pushed the collapse forward, and didn’t try to sell it. I revised it the last time before the current version after the terrorist attack of 2011. I submitted my manuscript to Wattle. The newest version has been revised completely. So, you see, it has taken over forty years to publication — from the original idea involving the gold market and LDC debt issues to its present form — The Phoenix Year.”
Q. Who are your favorite characters? And why?
DLB: Natalya is one my favorite female characters in the book. Although she encompasses strength, she is also vulnerable. I think I was in love with Natalie from The Winds of War and later in War and Remembrance, the two World War II novels by Herman Wouk. I hope, in time, readers will come to find that Natalya is a strong female lead with many different facets to her personality as this was my intention. I also like Kim a lot. Although she had a difficult upbringing, she fights against all odds to survive and succeed. She is also in the second book of the series.
Michael, and I have much in common. We have good ideas, but have usually been scared to see them implemented or acted upon. He has problems with what Von Kleise is doing even as much of what he wants to do to save capitalism from self destructing is based on what Michael has told him or written in the past. At the end Michael has to take responsibility and see the plan through as there is nothing else that will now help the global economy from collapsing on itself.
Ben and Lilly began as characters that we all can recognize — self promoting, too much wealth, not enough class, but in the end they change. The events change them, in a way they recover the love they once had for each other which in the glory years had turned into hate. I think Lilly remembers her roots in rural West Virginia. Beth, their daughter, is more of an issue. I feel sorry for her. She’s like the little rich girl who wanted love, not things, but got things not love. In the last book, I think she reemerges as a stronger and brighter woman having learned humility and wanting to right the wrongs done to her and the others.
Q. Have you traveled to many of the countries that you describe in The Phoenix Year? When?
DLB: We lived and worked in Switzerland. I was once in Thailand, but probably didn’t leave the hotel, and we spent the last twenty-five years in Washington working for the government and the private sector before moving to Santa Fe ten years ago. We lived for twenty years in a house in Cabin John which is a neighborhood that abuts the Potomac River and the C&O Canal where Natalya meets the children walking on a field trip. She follows them up a real path that leads into another neighborhood, close to the DC line, where there’s a Waldorf School. My children attended the school through high school and we learned much about Anthroposophy and Steiner’s philosophy.
We also hiked the Billy Goat Trail at the Great Falls of the Potomac about eight miles from our house. I once had to rescue my little dog who had fallen over a cliff and was standing on a ledge about twenty feet from the roaring river. So many of the places are very real ones.
Q. You mention Rudolf Steiner, Waldorf Education, and Anthroposophy in the book why? What is the relationship to what Von Kleise is trying to do.
DLB: I learned a lot about Waldorf Education when our children attended the Waldorf School in Washington. We also studied Rudolf Steiner, perhaps one of the true polymaths of the twentieth century. He died in 1923 but not without starting the School of Spiritual Science, bio-dynamic movement in agriculture (a more advanced form of organic farming practiced worldwide), a medical movement that uses specially potenized remedies similar to homeopathy and Waldorf education which was developed by Steiner to try to reform the German education system to make it more humanistic than mechanistic. Not surprisingly Hitler closed the schools when he took power and created his own version of occult science (the opposite of Steiner’s) going so far to induct the SS troops into this in bizarre rituals at Wewelsburg Castle, Westphalia, Germany.
Interestingly, many industrialists were highly motivated to work with Steiner in Middle Europe (the devastated countries that lost World War I — Germany and Austria). His support came from these rich men who were learning not to be selfish, but to share their wealth with others to improve the lot of humanity. Thus the first Waldorf School was for the children of the Waldorf Astoria Tobacco Company workers in Stuttgart.
After the end of World War I, Steiner toured Europe promoting his vision of the Three Fold Social Order that united the aims of business, labor, and government to create a more perfect world. His ideas on how capital must be used still resonate today. Money should not be tied up in gold or cash in banks, but circulated. Capital must be made available to entrepreneurs who can turn that capital into jobs. Steiner believed that the soul uses the earthly existence to learn and progress, gaining an understanding of other souls, i.e. compassion, but opposing this was the mechanism of our money driven world. He might have been the first to see materialism as the real problem for sustaining human life.
At Enigen, the school that Thomas Mache founded in Kandersteg, the will not the heart forces were worked on, but he was basically a believer in the ideal world that Steiner wanted to see evolve. Rather than waiting for humanity to come to understand this cooperative symbiotic world, he asked his disciples to make it happen in there on lifetimes. Thus Von Kleise is trying for a better world where capitalists are also humanists.
Q: What do you think of the economic situation in the United States? Do you see a short-term solution?
DLB: Despite the news of our death, the United States economy should be quite strong. Job growth is continuing, unemployment is down, and the help wanted adds are growing. The weather caused the drop in the first quarter, but everyone expects at least 2% growth. But the equity markets are probably years ahead of the recovery and profits depend upon the world economy more than they do the US economy. Thus the market after hitting 17000 is likely to drop.
In my mind the scenario painted in the novel could still come true, but the problems in the Middle East may keep oil prices higher. China’s economy is likely more fragile than analysts think. China is like a house of cards where the government spends lots of money insuring that it remains growing or at least has the veneer of a strong economy. A sudden change in China, a bust in housing that brings down the banks, slower global growth and more protectionism are possible and they would trigger the kind of events outlined in the book. But for now I doubt if all the things like the DOW at 12,000 by 2016 when the events start to unfold will happen, but you never know.
Q: You mention the author Ayn Rand, who wrote “Atlas Shrugged,” in one of your blog posts. What do you think of her book and why?
DLB: I read Ayn Rand’s novels — all of them — when I was in high school. I liked the story, the characters, but I wasn’t a fan of the philosophy. Atlas Shrugged, her most important novel, involves capitalists tuning out of the world and going back to Happy Valley. When they return they do it to rebuild a kind of libertarian world where selfishness is applauded and honored.
Von Kleise is the anti-John Galt. He sees the current world as the one that Ayn Rand’s heroes, John Galt or Henry Reardon, would love. It’s a world build on money using it for power and influence over government. It is a world of selfish interest rather than social awareness of others. So I see Von Kleise and the others as trying for a better vision. He must destroy the rich and the powerful, pull them down using the tools of the market that have built up their wealth, their paper fortunes based on stock values. He tricks them into selling off real assets and real companies with real workers. His goal is to rebuild society around the idea of the “common” the space where all parts must work for a single goal — to make the world a better, richer, safer place with less inequality and a healthier environment. I would say The Phoenix Year is the Anti-Atlas Shrugged for this reason.
Q: What genre do you enjoy to read?
DLB: I like historical fiction, science fiction, and good romance stories. In the past I read many a Robert Ludlum thriller, but have found the successors not as interesting. I liked the way Ludlum was able to create secret societies that made sense, but having living in Washington for as long as I have over the years, having so many running gun battles in the streets seems far fetched.
Q: Who are your favorite authors?
DLB: I don’t have that many favorite authors right now. I loved some of the earlier writing of Herman Wouk, Ludlum who I mentioned, and some others such as Philip Caputo come to mind. I loved all the JK Rowling Harry Potter books for the way she could made a children’s story interesting for adults.
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