On the deck of his cabin, gazing skyward in the last luminous light of a fall day, Richard Bach marvels at the birds circling overhead. “Look at them riding those updrafts,” he says. “It’s…it’s just beautiful.”
Anyone who lived through the 1970s—and remembers them—may be surprised that the birds are golden eagles, not seagulls. After all, Bach’s name is forever linked to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, his sweet fable of flight and freedom. Reviled by contemporary critics (“One called it ‘icky-poo,'” says Bach), Seagull sold more than 40 million copies and was a harbinger of the flock of New Age writing in the decades since.
Bach still sings the praises of taking wing—he has owned 36 planes over the years—but his search for the ineffable has taken him to animals more earthbound than Jonathan. The feisty heroes of The Ferret Chronicles, his new five-volume series, help humans renounce evil. (The first two books came out to mixed reviews in June; the third, Writer Ferrets: Chasing the Muse—praised by Publishers Weekly as “lovable and entertaining”—hits the shelves this month.) “Why ferrets? “They have,” says Bach, “a wonderful sense of humor and curiosity.”
Bach, 66, had almost forgotten his affinity for fauna until third wife Sabryna reminded him of it three years ago. “She said, ‘Why don’t you write some more animal stories?’ ” says Bach (whose seven post-Seagull books, including the bestselling Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah and The Bridge Across Forever: A Lovestory, featured human protagonists). “I said, ‘I don’t write animal stories.'”
Then they visited friends who owned ferrets. “The ferrets sniffed us,” Bach says. “I sensed this incredible intelligence.” He and Sabryna, an aspiring writer, began making up tall tales about them. “All of a sudden,” he says, “we had these imaginary ferrets with us.”
Pretty soon they had real ferrets with them too—nine in all. “They sleep 18 hours a day,” says Bach, “go full throttle for one hour, and the rest of the time is pretty much in between.”
Unlike his ferrets Bach has lived an eventful life. The son of Roland, a Red Cross director, and homemaker-city councillor Ruth, he was raised in Long Beach, Calif. He was 9 when brother Bobby, 11, died of leukemia. The loss left an indelible impression. “He had wisdom and serenity,” says Bach. “Since then I’ve had a fascination about death and dying.”
Bach was a U.S. Air Force pilot in 1958 when he dreamed one night about a seagull on a quest of self-discovery. Upon waking, he wrote it all down. “I couldn’t figure out how to finish it,” he says. Eight years after his first dream he had another. This one gave him the uplifting ending.
Published in 1970, Jonathan Livingston Seagull made Bach a multimillionaire. But by 1977 his first marriage (to homemaker Bette Frank, the mother of his six children) was over, the money was gone, and the IRS was demanding $1 million in back taxes. He declared bankruptcy, got divorced, remarried (to actress Leslie Parrish) and divorced once more—and kept on writing.
“Richard,” says Sabryna, whom he married in 1999, “is a ballad. He lives the way people sing love songs.” As for Bach, he says he aims to live “the perfect ferret way. Ferrets always live to their highest sense of right.” His own sense of right includes opting out of the Information Age since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “I don’t watch TV or read the newspapers,” he says. “I’m sick of evil.”
He and Sabryna live on a remote island in Washington State’s San Juan chain, in a cabin Bach says is “perched on the edge of the air.” There, he can watch the eagles soar and the cormorants dive and sometimes think about a certain seagull. “Jonathan,” he says with a smile, “is a dear, deep, forever friend.”
Johnny Dodd in the San Juan Islands