Interview with Glenn Kleier

by Claire E. White

From his days as a track star and straight-A student at St. Xavier's Catholic high school in Louisville, Kentucky to his tenure as the co-chair of Ross Perot's national campaign in Kentucky and being head of a successful national marketing and communications company, Glenn Kleier has
Photograph of Glenn Kleier
never shied away from challenges or controversies. He later resigned from United We Stand, Perot's political party, but he didn't escape being in the limelight. His debut novel, The Last Day (Warner, 1997) has generated a firestorm of controversy. A Millennium thriller which depicts the appearance of a mysterious young woman with strange powers who claims to be the new Messiah, The Last Day is a rollicking roller-coaster thrill ride which has received rave reviews and has been both condemned (by the American Catholic League) and praised (by Mother Teresa herself) by Catholics. Part thriller, part mystery, and part polemic on organized religion and hypocrisy in religion and the nature of faith, The Last Day is a fascinating read, regardless of your religious beliefs. We spoke with Glenn about his upbringing, his thoughts on religion and writing, and how a successful entrepeneur came to write such a controversial thriller.

You had already achieved success in the business world. What prompted you to launch a fiction career?

I was one of those lucky (?) individuals who knew exactly what he wanted to do since he was a child -- literally from the time I could hold a pencil in my hand. All through grade school, high school and college I wrote fiction (experimentally), fully intending to pursue a career as a novelist.

In graduating from college, my first position was actually with a publishing company, in their marketing department. But in application, that turned out to be not such a good move. After seeing from the inside how hard it can be to get published, and how meager the earnings were for most new writers, I decided I couldn't make a good living at it and turned to advertising. (Advertising is pretty much fiction, anyway, right?)

But I always knew I'd return to my first love someday, and the concept for The Last Day gave me the incentive.

How did The Last Day come into being? What was the genesis of the idea?

Cover of The Last Day
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I was incubating the idea as early as the late 1980s. I can't recall specifically what sparked the concept, but I suspect it was a mixture of things. Including a growing exasperation with the fact that several prominent world religious leaders (including the Pope) had begun exploiting people's fears regarding a Second Coming at the turn of the millennium.

I thought to myself, if the big name religions are all going to start crying wolf about Doomsday just like the cult fanatics, then maybe its high time to call the question. Exactly how ready are these churches to meet their Maker?

You show a remarkable knowledge of scriptures and of the Catholic church. Were you raised Catholic?

Yes indeed. Till my eighteenth year, under the strict tutelage of Ursaline nuns, Xaverian brothers and parish priests. A very formal education heavy on religious instruction.

How did being raised Catholic affect your life?

I have to admit, early on I was quite captivated by the religion. There's a lot of compelling spirituality to Catholicism that I found fascinating -- and still admire even now. But, as I grew a little older, I began to see some contradictions and inconsistencies in how the Catholic hierarchy applied the Church's standards to us lay people. There was often an arrogance and self-righteousness to it. And when my curious little pre-adolescent mind would question things, I'd quickly discover the Church's inflexibility as well. My curiosities were often interpreted as insolence and lack of faith and, unfortunately for me, corporal punishment was an accepted school practice in those days. Finally, after four rather tumultuous years of high school religion classes, my bingo card was revoked and I "retired" from the Catholic faith.

In The Last Day, organized religion -- and the Catholic church in particular -- really take it on the chin. Has organized religion failed its followers?

I think that question is readily answered in the rising numbers of people quitting their faiths -- and not just the Catholic faith (which, incidentally, just concluded a major synod in Rome to address the issue of increasing attrition rates). For many people, organized religion is losing its relevance and meaning. There's a growing resistance to narrow, dogmatic interpretations of scripture and the pressures to conform to rigid doctrine.

What was the most difficult aspect of writing The Last Day?

If you mean in general terms, I would suppose just finding the time to work it in while helping to raise my two young boys and serving as president of my company. But regarding the actual writing of the book -- those sections most difficult for me to compose -- I would have to say, the "parables." I was very determined that they should emulate as precisely as possible the feel and ambiance of the New Testament originals. And certainly, Christ is a hard act to follow!

I understand that Mother Teresa actually read a galley of The Last Day. How did that come about? What did she think of the book?

That was, for me, a very gratifying occurrence. Back in the fall of '96, my literary agent, Jillian Manus, also represented Mother Teresa on a work in progress (still unpublished) called Meditations. Unbeknownst to me, Jillian -- who is a truly daring and amazing lady -- offered Mother a galley of my manuscript, wanting to get Mother's opinions on what Jillian knew were going to be some very controversial religious issues in the story. Mother Teresa read the manuscript and, to my continuing astonishment, told Jillian she enjoyed it. She called The Last Day "a wake up call," identifying with much of what the female messiah in the novel was attempting to convey. I regret very much that I never had the opportunity to speak with Mother Teresa before her passing. She's most certainly one of my all-time personal heroes.

The Last Day deals with some very sensitive religious issues. What kind of reaction have you gotten?

Very mixed. Very polarized. I have on the one hand situations like what I just recounted about Mother Teresa. For example, in October of last year, I sat for the taping of a televised interview show at
"Mother Teresa read the manuscript and, to my continuing astonishment, told Jillian she enjoyed it. She called The Last Day 'a wake up call,' identifying with much of what the female messiah in the novel was attempting to convey."
KRON-TV San Francisco entitled "For Heaven's Sake," which is aired in about eight markets on the west coast. The show is hosted by respected Catholic priest and theologian, Father Miles O'Brien Riley, who was educated in Rome. I had no advance knowledge about Father Riley's reaction to reading the book and was a little concerned about how things might go. But to my surprise, Father Riley praised The Last Day as "very moving," and recommend it on air to his viewership. On the other hand, however, I've encountered some people who'd like to burn me at the stake, using my novel for kindling. The American Catholic League, for instance, has condemned the book and mounted a letter-writing campaign among its membership to halt production of the movie (scheduled for production this summer). Go figure!

Jeza the Messiah preaches a gospel of peace, nonviolence and the turning away from the rituals of organized religion. Does this reflect your own personal religious beliefs?

Pretty much so. It's been my experience that religious ritual often gets in the way of the true essence of religion. It's not the formalities you go through that count -- how many times you stand, sit or kneel during a service, or what mandated prayers you recite. It's what goes on in your heart and mind. Rituals can be counterproductive to a real, quality dialogue with the Almighty.

When you were writing The Last Day, did you ever get a feeling one way or the other that what you were writing was "guided from Above" in any way?

Gee, I hate to touch that one. Let me just say that if God were to have actively guided me through the entire process, from initial concept through the acquiring of my agent, publisher and movie producer, He could not have orchestrated it in a more compelling manner. It was so completely fulfilling.

Why did you decide to make the Messiah a woman?

Because if God were to send us another Messiah, I sincerely feel He would send a woman. Women have been on the brunt end of the pastoral staff -- denied full representation and spiritual expression in their religions -- for 2,000 years. It's time to balance the scales. Besides, a female messiah made for a lot more controversy and complexity within the novel.

Let's talk about Jon Feldman. What or who was the inspiration for him?

You know, all the characters in the story were archetypes that were assembled (if you will) to meet the criteria of the book -- to fill in those characterizations. So he really wasn't inspired by anyone. In fact there's no one in the book, not even the villians, that were conjured up from any experiences or relationships that I've had. And that's also true of Feldman. He just fits that bill.

The interplay between Feldman (more intellectual and intropsective) and Breck Hunter (more down to earth and cynical, seemingly less deep than Feldman) is quite interesting and provides an ongoing dialogue about the events as they occur from different points of view. Is there any of you in the two main male characters?

You know that's a very perceptive comment you've made, because other people who have asked me if I'm in this book anywhere (and I guess I have to be if I wrote it) I would emerge probably most signifigantly as a combination of those two characters. They are my yin and my yang. Feldman would be more of my (if it exists) my spiritual, reflective side and Hunter would be more of the cynical, secular side. And I guess putting them together, well that kind of spells agnostic, doesn't it?

Sometimes I almost felt that I could hear you having a debate with yourself as I listened to the two characters.

Yes, it's ongoing. I've never been able to reconcile the heart side of me, which desperately wants there to be a God, with the mind side of me. I feel that the world needs so badly for there to be a God, but a proactive God, not a passive God. If we have a God, it's a passive God. Then my mind side of me (the brain side) has a hard time reconciling what goes on in this world and some of the awful atrocities and the misery that goes on out there with any sort of sentient almighty being who could easily do something about it given with the abilities that we all attribute to him or her or it. That's an ongoing battle I don't think I'll ever win. And I've heard all the rationales for why God would allow these things. But I'm sorry. When you see the suffering of some innocent child or some ridiculous national calamity that destroys so much good, the rationales just don't work for me.

The Last Day must have required a massive amount of research. How did you approach the research project? Did you use the Internet for research? Did you have to travel a great deal?

Unfortunately, I was never able to travel to any of the exotic locales in the book prior to writing it (other than Salt Lake City -- if you consider that exotic -- but the Mormon Convention Hall in that scene was fictitious anyway). Back when I first began researching the story, the Internet wasn't even an option. I hit the library hard, read hundreds of books and magazines, travelogues, viewed video tours, et. al. As the Internet became available, I exploited it heavily. Now it's my preferred source for about 80% of my research.

In the book, you take a rather cynical view of the television news media. Is the television media out of control in its pursuit of ratings gold? Is it really that bad?

Competition for viewership has become so competitive, I do feel news programming often crosses over the once-sacrosanct border into entertainment. Consider the decreasing amount of air time now devoted to actual "hard" news (the current Algerian massacres, the crisis of the Asian economic markets). All three major broadcast networks, as measured by independent auditing services, has scaled back such coverage in favor of "soft" news (health & fitness reports, lifestyle stories, and so forth). In my estimation, this is not a healthy trend.

As part of the promotion of the book, you designed a website with some fascinating and unique features, such as fictional news stories of the events in the book. Tell us about how that came about.

Actually, I have to give credit for the book's website to the interactive development department at Kleier Communications, Inc. Since I'm writing full time now, I seldom even poke my nose in the company door any more. The idea they had was to create a website for the novel that would enhance the reading experience. They included some fun, interactive mechanisms that would let visitors learn more about the book, discuss with other readers issues raised in the story, ventilate, ask questions for which I will attempt to provide answers, get updates on coming book-related events, and so forth.

I understand the movie rights to The Last Day have been sold to Columbia TriStar. What's the status on the movie version? Ideally, who do you see in the role of Jeza? To play Jon Feldman?

Correct, Columbia TriStar has bought film rights. Initially, The Last Day was considered for theatrical release, but the story proved too lengthy for conversion to a 90 minute format. So it's now been optioned for a four hour TV miniseries. Production is slated to begin this summer with an air date sometime next year on NBC. At first, I thought the role of Jeza should be
"[O]ne thing that I would like people to know is that I'm not out to trash organized religion. The book wasn't written to drive people away from their religions or anything like that."
played by an unknown -- someone who doesn't carry any viewership recognition factor to the part. Someone who would present a totally fresh face for this unique, messianic being. But I've since heard mention of Winona Ryder (unconfirmed I quickly add), and certainly she would bring an irresistible power and dramatic presence to the role. For Feldman, maybe a Noah Wyle or David Duchovny or Keanu Reeves? I'm not sure. But I'd love to see Anthony Hopkins or Murray Abraham as Cardinal di Concerci. All this is just wishful thinking on my part, of course. As you might suspect, I have no control over such things. I only serve as creative consultant on the film, and count myself lucky at that. However, I'm most grateful to Craig Anderson and Helene Lynn-Nash of Craig Anderson Productions for welcoming me into the process. It's been fun and truly educational!

How did you juggle running your own company with writing a novel?

It was tough, I have to admit. Especially at first. But over the the span of four years in which I wrote the book, I slowly pulled back from my work load, relinquishing some responsibilities to associates. Eventually, my wife, who was CEO of the company (a seasoned advertising veteran and the brains of the outfit anyway), generously agreed to take full reigns while I wrestled with finishing the novel -- I had an immovable deadline of course, with the millennium clock steadily ticking. Certainly I could not have written the book without the unflagging support of my wife and colleagues who so kindly filled in for me. And now that the company has seen how entirely dispensable I am, everyone's quite content for me to continue what I'm doing.

I'd like to talk about the Internet a little bit. As a marketing expert, what role do you see the Internet playing in marketing in the future?

I would have to say -- and I'm sure I'll get taken to task for this -- that it's going to overwhelm marketing. It's going to take it over. In my mind the simple bottom line is that the less complexity in marketing, the more the market accepts it. And to be able to, in the comfort and privacy of your own home, call up just about any product or service in the world, have it immediately at your fingertips and have a search engine to root through to pick out precisely what it is that fits your needs is too tempting a prospect and I just see the Internet as becoming an absolute mainstay in marketing. I'm seeing it already in advertising. It's beginning to intrude decisively into advertising budgets. It's growing proportionately every year and it's going to keep doing that, I think.

Do you see advertising on the Internet stealing advertising dollars more away from print (magazines, newspapers) or from TV?

I see it primarily stealing from television and not as much from radio and print. The reason being (and this is my perspective anyway) radio is a medium that you can access in your car, whereas you're not likely to be watching TV or playing around on the Internet -- well, I guess you could pull over and do it maybe -- also it's not as mobile, even with the lightweight notebooks and laptops and so forth. It's not likely you'd take your $2000 laptop out to the beach to peruse it, where as you would take a magazine or a newspaper or something. So I see those two media as being pretty much protected. But television which is a domestic sort of thing that you do in your own home competes directly with your computer screen . I think as the two media converge, as you access your television for internet services and content it's going to definitely take away from television and I see the dollars transferring over to the Internet medium because of that.

What kind of timetable would you put on that? Is this something that will happen in the next year, or in the next 5 years?

I would attach an event to that. The precipitating situation will be when they get access down to the point where people can readily get real time video and audio and reliable bandwith on their computers. Once that happens, once you have that Internet access I think that it will be almost an instantaneous transformation and people will desert television for the Internet.

You mentioned earlier that you use the Internet for research. Do you use it for anything else?

You know, I'm not much on games or entertainment or any of those sorts of things. I would have to say that almost 100% of my time on the Internet -- and I'm on it a lot -- is for research purposes. I'm on there for a purpose; I'm going after information from some source or another. I also use it for email communications which I think is wonderful. I do a lot of conversation that way. It could become an entertainment medium for me, if I could access those things that I'm interested in. But for the most part now, it's a research tool. When you get the combination of HDTV and on demand entertainment on the Internet, you're going to have a compelling medium there.

As a father, do you see any problems with allowing children full access to the Internet?

Oh, absolutely. Yes. I'm really distressed. I dumped a major online provider because of its chat lines. I was letting my kids with my supervision talk supposedly to other kids. And between the content, the language and the predators -- and we encountered it all and I was right there with them -- I couldn't handle it. A lot of damage can be done. I'm not a prude or anything, but hey this is kids! A lot of adults abrogate their responsibilities and just turn it over to their online service provider thinking that those kids are protected, and they're just not. Eventually these things will be corrected. There will be mechanisms for screening out foul language and content to some degree. We'll come up with some solutions for that. It's a tough situation.

What kind of books do you enjoy reading? Who are some of your favorite authors?

I have to make a confession. I don't very often read contemporary writers and that's from two perspectives: first, I would probably be too intimdated to write myself because some of today's writers are just so outstanding, and secondly I don't want there to be any kind of subtle influences on what I'm trying to do. It means a lot to me that whatever I tackle is original and fresh. It's very hard anyway. There's such a culture base of things going on that no matter what you touch, someone's already been there. At the very least, I hope that whatever I try to do will have some aspects of originality to it and I think I'd be too easily influenced or have the seeds of some ideas implanted in me if I were to read a lot of contemporary writing. So, rather than that, I read a great deal of periodicals, current events, politics and history. And I do read the classics and older novels on occasion. I hope that will change one day, but for now I'm just kind of steering away from it. There are a lot of great writers out there now. If I had to cite one in recent history that I consider really extraordinary, it would be Joseph Heller. He is just an outstanding author. And in my youth I read voraciously. H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs and everything I could get my hands on -- a lot of science fiction back then. I felt it was really innovative.

What do you do to relax to take your mind off work? Do you have any hobbies?

I enjoy spending time with my family. Whenever I'm with them, whenever we're doing anything, whether it's ballgames, or hiking, fishing or skiing or whatever we do things together that's when I'm happiest. That is what I find most relaxing. My kids and my wife are very stimulating to me as people. They keep me laughing and amused and the bring out the "devil" in me. It's a good way to get off point and see things from a different perspective.

Is there anything else that you'd like to say about the book?

Well, the things in the book are important things and that's why I was motivated to write the book in the first place. I guess one thing that I would like people to know is that I'm not out to trash organized religion. The book wasn't written to drive people away from their religions or anything like that. I do feel that there are problems with modern organized religion that are not being addressed that have been obfuscated. To me, religion is based on money, power and self-perpetuation, not on those more spiritual aspects that Christ or Mohammed or whomever I think ordained their religions to pursue. There are just so many problems, such as pedophilia in the clergy or the sex scandals that have emerged which point up the hypocrisy in religion. I wanted this book to be nothing more than just a source for some healthy dialogue in getting some of these subjects out on the table. If it could do that much, that little, then I would be happy with that.

What's next for Glenn Kleier on the literary front?

I've got three more manuscripts in the works. All novels, all suspense thrillers, all totally unrelated to The Last Day and to each other. The first is a political potboiler (a natural after religion, right? -- might as well alienate everybody!). I style it as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington . . . with a vengeance!" It has a sort of a Tom Clancy feel to it. I hope to have it finished this summer. The next novel is set at a hallowed university, current day. A truly loathsome, foul presence is stalking the campus coeds. But the seeds of this evil were sewn over fifty years ago in a shameful and sordid event that has come back twice now to haunt the college. It will be up to a troubled female police detective to travel the cold and convoluted trail back to a mystery that will tax her to the very core of her insecurities. So gothic! And third, is the strange story of the inexact, gray divide between man and beast, mental competency and incompetency: a legal thriller and a tale of societal insecurity that explores the base nature of man and the very limits and boundaries of perversion. And that should keep me busy well into the next Millennium!

Glenn, thank you for coming today!

It was my pleasure -- thank you!

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