Saturday, April 3, 2010

Freedom - part 2

Interview with Thomas Sullivan

Today's blog entry continues our exploration of 'Freedom' and its importance for enhancing a person's life by engendering attitudes that support it and beliefs that motivate it.

In this entry, I've interviewed Pulitzer prize nominated author Thomas 'Sully' Sullivan for his thoughts and advice about freedom.

Sully represents a wonderful exemplar of someone who has transcended the norm, is creative, generative, and lives a life of choice and empowerment, both through his actions in life and through his many and varied writings.

As noted in a recent online review of Sully's work: "His writings celebrate the individual and freedom".


To back this up, I recently finished reading the awesome 'The Phases of Harry Moon', the opus for which Sully received the Pulitzer nomination. In Sully's own words:
"TPOHM, is very much about rendering impossible things possible, first in inner space, and then in one's performance on the stage of life."

Whether you are reading Sully's wonderfully crafted stories, his lyrical monthly 'Sullygram' newsletter [], or his daily tweets [], you'll often find him x-country skiing at midnight, amongst a moon-light reflected field of snow crystals, or paddling on a nearby lake, revelling in the freedom of life and nature. Sully makes the most of life, living it with passion and sharing freely with those of us who appreciate these values.

So I'll leave you now in the capable hands of Sully as he contemplates the questions I proposed about freedom, what it is and how best to create it in your own life.

Q. How do you define freedom? What is freedom for you? Why do you think its life enhancing and important?

At this point in my life I define freedom as having choices, top to bottom.  Not just choices in what I do, how I use my time, where I go, how much I spend, what I eat, what I wear, the car I drive and so forth; but choices in how I think and who I spend time with and what is worth my attention.

It is a much more nuanced state now than, say, when I was a teenager, because I am much more aware of prerogatives now.  In fact, I have become more of an existentialist in this regard -- existentialism being defined (or mis-defined) by me as an awareness of prerogatives.

Another critical aspect of freedom/choice for me is that I'm relatively free of fear and guilt.  I don't mean the fundamental kind of fears that secure our physical well-being, or the healthy guilt that gives us empathy for our species.  I mean the utterly useless and cowardly fears and guilt that drive us toward conformity, make us serve the opinions of others, and force us underground in conflict with ourselves.  Those are the enemies of freedom.

For me, freedom is almost too central to be called life enhancing as if it is a mere add-on to one's fundamental state.  It is a core need, and the tolerance for freedom and the degree of need are distinguishing differences among people.  Can one exist under total control and virtually no choice?  Yes… but that's tantamount to being on life support with no brain waves.  Freedom is the difference between living and just existing.

Q. How do you motivate yourself to stay free and overcome the limitations and expectations of society that attempt to constrain your freedom?

Wow.  Life's dynamite question.

But how to answer in less than a book?

Okay.  A little perspective 101 here: we all give up some freedom/choice to gain security.  Laws are just such a social contract (e.g. I'll give up my freedom to rob you for the security that you won't rob me).  So that's a given.  What I want to focus on here aren't the constraints on freedom that protect body or property.  Rather they have to do with one's personal control, movements, expressions and the interactions of relationships.

When we make mental, emotional or spiritual representations by our words or lifestyle choices they carry implications for the society or individuals around us that can range from threatening to affirming.  They can create bonds or alienations, friends or enemies, the beginnings or endings of love.  And, since those words and lifestyle choices are indicators of our thoughts and feelings, they are subject to interpretation and appearances.  Hence, our complex psychological interactions based on social pressure, mores, values, intimidation, manipulation, denial, façades, etc.  It is impossible to live completely free of that.  (Come up for air, Sully!)

Like I said, all of this is just context for framing an answer here.  So when you ask how I stay free, the reply is that I dodge most of the part that is social/relationship pressure and hypocrisy by daily re-connecting with what I think is honest in life.

Yeah, nature is a huge source for me -- a model for truths.  Not just crazy things I do with recreation, but what is there to be discovered, analyzed and celebrated.  Nothing helps me sort through the vanities and ulterior motives of man better than the cycles and strategies for survival in nature.  I also believe that when you stand true to your own heart/mind/soul you get the best outcomes long-term for yourself and the world around you.  You can't get that by living lies with no escape, no sanctuary.

Many people suffer lives of quiet desperation, sincerely believing that sacrificing who they are for appearances that fit their circumstances is the correct and noble thing to do.  It never honors their circumstances, and it seldom fools anyone in the long run.  And if it does the latter, well, then you’ve fooled someone, but you've also fooled yourself.  Maybe that's all right in a comfortable existence.  It's not all right for me.

The truth will set you free, as they say, and truth is very emancipating to me.  Being fooled is antithetical to that.  So I'm constantly struggling for personal honesty and greater insight.  Self-honesty is ever a work in progress, but I think I do relatively well with it.  We can do that within ourselves because we have absolute control.  Not so with the externals.  There you have virtually no control.

I have less tolerance for being fooled than most people.  I have a greater need for control of my life but I absolutely don't want to control anyone else's, because controlling someone else exposes me to being fooled.  In fact, my first reflex when trust is demanded of me is to give the other party every opportunity to betray it, because I’d rather know up front that I lost something than find out in slow motion over lost time that I never really had it.  I guess that's just an acid test -- a way to simplify and make that part of life I can't control self-regulating.

If you have to ask for something that comes from the emotional bonding part of social interaction, you will probably never truly get it, because you have just cued that person(s) to give it to you.  Demands, soft or implied, are never as satisfying as what comes to you intuitively or voluntarily.  Hey, is that an effective way to handle insecurity or what?  (Or maybe it's just a way to intensify the best things in life…shhh, just sayin’.)

Intensifying passions really is my conscious motive and has been since I was a teenager.  Another way to put it is that I place a very high priority on honesty for anything seriously close to me (but shameless dishonesty from anything that is not close to me is no problem!).  So you see how freedom depends on control for me and control, in practice, depends on keeping things simple (yeah, right), and the whole thing depends on honesty.  Honesty is sort of the nutrient.  Without it, even the potential for growth is not possible.  (Say goodbye, Sully.)

Okay.  I’ve snuck up on a conclusion.  I try to live as honestly as I can.  There.  A simple answer with a lot of complex premises!

[Note to self: if Grant Soosalu ever asks a question like this again, feign amnesia.]

Q. What advice do you have for people with regards to freedom, choice and flexibility?

Hurry up and outgrow your crippling fears and guilt.  The sooner you get there, the more fulfilling and happy your life will be (and the less unhappiness will become ingrained).  Wait too long and you may find yourself old and enslaved by the habit of negative thinking.  It takes a little courage.  But the end result will be that you'll have shed two things that controlled you -- fear and guilt -- and those, my friends, are the two biggest steps toward freedom you'll ever take.

Whether or not you let the world see your self-honesty doesn't really matter.  It's always nice if you can find relationships and environments where you can be your honest self, but if you can't, at least find a private sanctuary with no façades.  Every day.  Control, honesty, choice: all related and all essential to freedom.  Eat your heart out, if you think I'm going to say more than that.  I went long on the last question.

Q. What beliefs, attitudes and values do you live and embody that support you being free and allow you to live the wonderful life that you do?

This is going to sound like a contradiction, but the most enhancing thing I get out of freedom is the potential to sacrifice it for some cause or someone.  That is not so much altruism as it is romanticism.  I am a romantic idealist.  This is my yellow brick road to the most perfect world I can have.  Whether or not I actually get to exercise that romantic potential, doing so would be the ultimate free choice.  So the more free I am, the more I have to offer by such a sacrifice.

I've given myself heart-and-soul to causes several times in my life; I've taken a child wholly into my life twice; I've found true love once.  Those were ultimates.  But if none of those things had happened, I would still want to be a person who could have done them.  That kind of enhancement is what my life is all about.

Depth of feeling is my drug.  Such Uber-Passion kickstarts energy and imagination.  It's not for everyone; but maybe it should be.  And again, it doesn't necessarily have to be exercised in order to yield rewards.  It's having your thoughts and your feelings honed that matters.

I think most people yearn to be more honest in their thoughts, to be fearlessly open and free, but are afraid of what they might lose.  Their secret dread is that the truth will expose them as unworthy.  I see this every day in the way that people react.  And I don't mean this as something I should get credit for, but strangers open up to me almost instantly.  It’s as if I’m a non-person, some not quite human free spirit who spouts poetic fantasies and therefore doesn’t count.  I don’t know how to explain that except that maybe they see the freedom in my thoughts and want desperately to believe it will allow me to understand them without judgments or shock or disrespect.

Q. In your writing, how does the leitmotif of freedom inform your work and the characters and themes in your books and stories? And how is this reflected in your own life?

It is almost always there in my work, implicit in an abundance of free-spirited characters who search for truth, but the market is driven by mostly thing & event plots rather than idea & emotion characters.  So my thrillers tend to run on adrenaline in physical situations.

But for the reader who wants deeper internal conflicts, I like to think my characters fill the bill, particularly in that they are often struggling for control of their lives and with self-honesty -- truth seekers, if you will, reaching for the courage to live their convictions.  Control and self-honesty, as indicated in my prior answers, are the bedrock of freedom for me.

Other than my Pulitzer Prize-nommed THE PHASES OF HARRY MOON, most of the mainstream/contemporary/literary fiction I’ve written remains unpublished.  But in that languishing body of work you would find the subject of freedom/control/self-honesty to be front and center.

Perhaps my magnum opus in that regard is a book titled H.E.R.S. & H.I.M.S., which almost went directly to film after it failed to attract a publisher.  Its political incorrectness made it ultimately too risky at the time when a major Hollywood producer (who had 18 films, including one blockbuster to his credits) was interested.  The novel’s candid assessment of modern marriage would probably still offend either gender.

And another unpublished novel of mine, very much in the free-spirited theme, is DRUMMERS ON GLASS, which E. P. Dutton once purchased for hardcover.  When they demised their entire trade division temporarily, the contract got caught up between two imprints for a couple of years until I finally asked for and received a reversion of rights.  I have not gone back to market with that one because I’ve been publishing thrillers, but its unfettered and eccentric characters are very much what we’re talking about here.

PostScript: What a diabolic interview!  That man behind the curtain is Grant Soosalu, who concocts the most telling inquiries into the most intriguing (and relevant) subjects.  Thanks for that, Grant, and for having the courage and insight to chase down the elusive keys to positive living.  You enlarge the available world.

best wishes, Sully

And for those interested in reading some of Sully's books:


  1. Perusing some of Sully's past 'Sullygrams', I came across this gem I thought was well worth sharing here, and that reflects a deep connection between dreams and freedom:

    "Wherever you are, I hope your dreams tower above your fears. Dreams are the freest part of us, fears the most crippling. You don’t have to use nature to inspire potential, but finding the honesty and courage to reach for perfection is the only way to avoid long-term regrets. Whether or not you actually reach your destination isn’t what you’re accountable for. Taking the journey is."

    see: for the whole sullygram entry

    smiles, Grant

  2. What a great interview! Freedom and independence is the foundation of creative art regardless of genres. And freedom of choice is a good thing in life. But remember that with freedom comes responsibility. We're social creatures after all. Sullivan's comments on the ultimates in life and sacrifices are therefore important. Thank you for a great interview.

    Jan Fredrik

  3. Not surprised that you would identify that connection and express it so succinctly, Jan. Your perceptions are always top drawer, and I thank you for nailing it. I'll only add that with or without altruism, responsibility, et al, the logic of the mechanism would probably still exist for me. It could serve purely selfish ends as well. Potentiating sacrifice by enhancing one's offering (freedom in this case) could also compound the reward one receives. Depends on what reward you want, I suppose. And even that could be noble or not. Semantics of selfishness are part of this. What self-interest is served? Power, greed or a self-image based on some form of worthiness? In the case of "love," it's a quid pro quo of the most literally romantic ideals, I think. Not a 50-50 exchange, but a 100-100 one with no strings attached. What I ansered in questions 2 and 4 comes together for me in this notion of romantic idealism. That "betrayal" litmus test is a way to measure it. Ah, me, you guys are too deep. You see how you've forced me to leap in over my head? Thanks much for the push, though. It's a joy to meet minds (and blogs) like this one and Jan Fredrik's in Norway.

    -- Sully

  4. Hello Grant,

    I came to your fascinating blog through Sully's newsletter and will definitely be coming back for another visit!

    Excellent interview. My favorite Thomas Sullivan novel so far is Dust of Eden. But this has me ready to pull Harry Moon off the shelf and re-read it.

  5. Hi Jean, thanks for checking out the blog and Sully's great interview, and thanks for the very kind feedback.

    Yes, Sully is a wonderful writer and I always enjoy reading him. There is a depth to his work that goes beyond the story. I think that is reflected in his thoughts on freedom and what it means to really live a life of meaning.

    Thanks again for your comments, I truly appreciate them.

    cheers and smiles, Grant

    ps If you haven't seen it, there's another Sully interview on the blog at:


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