James Redfield has built a brand-new 4,000-square-foot house with a sun-dappled den overlooking a lake, but every now and then he just has to get away, let the answering machine do its duty, and amble down the gravel path to his cabin next door. Just like Thoreau, Redfield actually has a cabin — a little green bungalow on the edge of the lake, perfumed by Alabama pine and equipped with little more than a barbecue and a porch swing. It was here, seven years ago, that Redfield decided to quit his job as a children’s counselor in nearby Birmingham and to hunker down to write a slim, strange little volume called The Celestine Prophecy. Since then, the cabin is about the only thing in his life that hasn’t changed. ”It’s quite a serene place,” Redfield sighs, watching Shelby County’s clouds pass over the water. ”Sometimes I come over and rock on the porch just to get away from the telephones. You hear ‘em ringing?”
Indeed you do. The phone’s been ringing for a good two years now, ever since The Celestine Prophecy — a metaphysical Raiders of the Lost Ark about a man who combs the Peruvian jungle for an ancient manuscript and arrives at a mystical enlightenment — set up its own private ashram in The New York Times best-seller list. The book has stayed there for an astonishing 113 weeks and still shows no signs of losing steam. More than just a hit, Prophecy has snowballed into the kind of word-of-mouth culture craze that publishers pray for, outlasting titles by big guns like John Grisham and Stephen King, spawning groups of acolytes who pore through its leaden prose, and flooding Redfield with ”maybe a couple hundred inquiries” from Hollywood producers drooling to snap up the movie rights — rights that could go for as much as $4 million, sources say. Sure, Thoreau had his brush with fame, but the Concord hermit never had to contend with a cell-phone-wielding army of Hollywood hotshots.
Then again, Thoreau didn’t sell 5 million copies of Walden worldwide. Thanks to a ’90s vogue for all things spiritual, the heavenly ”insights” hatched in Redfield’s lakeside retreat have blossomed into a cottage industry, one that just might transform the mild-mannered 46-year-old scribe into a Martha Stewart of the soul. Over the next year alone, celestial voyagers will be able to chill to a synth-pop soundtrack to The Celestine Prophecy, flip through Redfield workbooks and calendars and pocket guides, or click their way through Redfield’s ”spiritual encyclopedia,” an upcoming CD-ROM called The Magical Library that he’s putting together with Michael Murphy, chairman of the Esalen Institute, the trippy hippie enclave in Big Sur, Calif.
Just this month, Warner Books will flood bookstores with one million copies of the Celestine sequel, The Tenth Insight. ”James is in many respects a prophet for our time,” gushes Joann Davis, Redfield’s editor at Warner. ”He’s preaching a new gospel about how to experience spirituality in your everyday life; I don’t think it’s by any means a fad.” Even Redfield’s second wife, Salle, a former massage therapist, has gotten into the act; she has sold almost 60,000 copies of The Joy of Meditating and signed a two-book deal with Warner.