Celestial Reasoning

updated 04/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

PAST THE NO TRESPASSING SIGN, THE LOCKED gate and the steep, unmarked red-dirt driveway twisting up into the hills near Birmingham, Ala., James Redfield sits on the porch of his lakefront cabin, shivering a bit in the chilly morning air. "The last thing I want to be is somebody's guru," he says thoughtfully, looking out over the pine trees and blossoming dogwoods and sipping a cup of herbal tea. "The world doesn't need another Shirley MacLaine."

But like it or not, Redfield, 44, is being hailed as a spiritual pooh-bah, thanks to the phenomenal success of his first novel, The Celestine Prophecy. The story of an American's adventures in the Peruvian rain forest in search of a manuscript containing nine insights into life and spirituality. Prophecy has soared to the top of bestseller lists, making Redfield, a former children's therapist, one hot guru. After peddling copies of his self-published book for over a year to New Age stores. Redfield sold the hardcover rights to Warner Books for 8800,000 last December. To date. Prophecy has sold over 500,000 copies, and Redfield now receives hundreds of fan letters a week as well as faxes from agents and film producers—and even the occasional smitten disciple who drops in unexpectedly from as far away as California.

Critics have been less enthralled. Tin' Minneapolis Star Tribune called the book "New Age pop psychology in the form of a bad novel...so turgid and self-important that to categorize this as literature makes no more sense than calling a connect-the-dots painting a work of ail." But Prophecy isn't New Age nonsense, insists Red-field, though he agrees there's been plenty of that around. "The New Age was hilarious," he says. "People wearing little pyramids on their heads, pursuing it in a pretentious way. But wherever there's a counterfeit, there's also the real thing. This book puts into words how to experience spirituality.

Born and raised near Birmingham, Redfield—one of two children of an artist father and a homemaker mother—says his soul search began in his youth, when he learned about salvation at the local Methodist church. "The dialogue there was that salvation comes by grace, that you open up and you get it," he says. "But how? The details of that were not discussed." Studying psychology at Auburn University, Redfield earned a master's degree in counseling in 1974 and for the next 15 years worked as a therapist for troubled children in Auburn, Ala., and later in Birmingham.

All along, Redfield says, he was forming ideas—such as absorbing energy by getting in tune with nature—that would find their way into Prophecy. In the mid '70s he traveled to the Peruvian Andes, where he heard of a missing ancient manuscript rumored to hold mysterious insights into the meaning of life. But it wasn't until 1989 that he quit his job in order to write full-time, most often at a Waffle House near Birmingham. "That helped give me a sense of a generic audience, to keep the story simple," he says.

Prophecy was almost finished when he met Salle Merrill, 33, a former massage therapist, whom he wed last year. (He will not discuss a brief marriage to a speech therapist in the late '70s, his two children. Kelly and Megan, or his divorce—other than to say it was amicable.) After the manuscript was rejected by a string of small publishers, Redfield spent $13,000—his life savings—and published 3,000 paperback copies in December 1992. He and Salle began hawking them out of the trunk of his Honda Accord to New Age bookstores all over the South. They sold out within weeks and, eventually, Redfield sold 150,000 self-published copies, triggering a bidding war among major publishers.

Not indifferent to material pleasures, Redfield—already at work on a Prophecy screenplay and a sequel called The Tenth Insight—is building a larger home near his cabin on Stoney Butte and plans to lour Europe this fall. But fame and fortune won't mean abandoning the contemplative life he shares with Salle and their cat. Meredith. "I'm a visionary writer, and all the high-profile stuff Can interfere with that," he says. "There are a whole bunch of very authentic, down-to-earth people who are still exploring spiritual transformation in themselves. The search goes on."

KATHY KEMP in Birmingham

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