Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Flannery O'Connor and the City of Literature II

Here's the complete text of my interview with Brad Gooch, author of "Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor." Gooch will be reading at 7 p.m., Thursday at Prairie Lights in downtown Iowa City.

Q: If your audience members had time to read only one Flannery O’Connor story before your reading, which would you recommend?

A: That depends on if they have ever read an O’Connor story before. If so, then I love “Revelations.” Everything just seems to come together in that story. You begin with that quaint snapshot of Southern life, and then you end with this Dantesque image of souls going up to heaven. You get both in one.

If they’ve never read an O’Connor story, then “A Good Man is hard to Find” is the best introduction — because it such a vivid shocker.

Q: Are you religious?

A: Well, sure. In a neutral way. I go to the Episcopal Church. I have a spiritual tourist sense.

Q: Is that sense what first drew you to O’Connor?

A: Actually, I first started reading the stories in my early 20s — just because I loved the stories. Frank O’Hara was my favorite poet, and Flannery O’Connor was my favorite fiction writer. And now I’ve gotten to write biographies on both of them.

Then her letters came out in “Habit of Being.” I always knew there was some medieval Catholic thing going on in her stories, but it seemed subtle until the letters made it overt. It was the combination that made me interested in the biography — figuring out how her life related to her art.

I stopped after I learned that Sally Fitzgerald was doing a biography and I waited impatiently for more than two decades. I started working on my own biography about six years ago.

Q: You nicely contrast 1) those artists who met O’Connor, experienced her religiosity firsthand and then found themselves pleasantly shocked by the power of her stories and 2) those artists who read O’Connor, experienced the power of her stories and then were awkwardly shocked when they met her and experienced her religiosity firsthand. Which O’Connor do you resonate with more?

A: The stories stand on their own. I teach a lot of freshmen for whom Flannery O’Connor winds up being a favorite author. It’s the stories’ vividness — and their violence — that makes them work so powerfully.

The oscillation between the letters and the stories becomes an even bigger puzzle. Flannery herself seemed to sense this and developed a sort of madness to explain herself. That’s part of why she gave so many lectures — 60 in a decade — while on crutches. It’s part of the tension in her work that makes her so fascinating.

There are people, especially in Milledgeville, Ga., who say people should read the letters first and then read the stories. Then there are those who think we should just read the stories and ignore the letters. Then there others who find no disconnect between the two.

I want to stress that she was not a character in her own stories. She probably was more normal and more sophisticated than people give her credit for.

Q: Surely every O’Connor fan has heard her famous statement, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” How essential was it for you pull from the archives and to help correct the image of O’Connor’s childhood? You linger on her girlhood for longer than other biographies do.

A: It interests me how so much of her character and training seems so intact so early on. In the anecdotes from other children, it’s evident that her personality is so strong.

A lot of times in biographies, the childhood of a person doesn’t seem to have that much connection to the person we are interested in. It becomes a lot of genealogy. But she was just as comic and snarky and compelling when she was five as when she was older. You look back at her cartoons and the books she was writing about the characters in her own family, and she already was very productive in a singularly idiosyncratic way.

Plus, there are so many children in her work. There is almost a young adult quality — especially in the fact they are less about sex than about violence. It makes her girlhood interesting — rather than just a necessary part in the process of writing a biography.

Q: If O’Connor were breaking on the literary scene today, do you think her stories would be classified as young adult literature?

A: I think she would have much the same problem she had when she was alive. The original reviewers had a terrible time trying to figure out what to make of her. She wasn’t a best-selling author, and the reviewers often misunderstood her work. She’s similar to Frank O’Hara in that respect as well.

Many authors get celebrated in the publishing industry while they are still alive but then drop out of sight soon after. But she’s the opposite. She has endured and, over time, come across as the real thing. The writers and artists who are most difficult to package when they are producing often have the longest shelf life.

She had a sense of that and had a pretty extraordinary confidence in her own work.

Q: O’Connor is obviously queer — meaning that her sense of sexuality must have been something other than heteronormative — but how did her understanding of her own sexuality evolve throughout her too short adult life?

A: I had to accept at a certain point — and I wish others would come to accept it, too— that sex didn’t seem the driving force in her life. When I published my Frank O’Hara biography 20 years ago, people complained that there was too much sex, specifically too much gay sex. Now I have a biography in which there is no sex.

It’s important to remember that she had a sense of spirituality that meant something important to her and that she had lupus. Now, she was very good at making lemons out of lemonade, and after Erik Langkjaer, she probably figured a sexual relationship wasn’t in the cards for her. … When Betty Hester sent her a letter declaring her love for her, Flannery is completely nonplussed. She may be more sophisticated about sexuality than we realize, but she never talks about it.

There was a moment in which she reacted positively to the idea that there is a connection between sexuality and the violence in her work, but I don’t know how much she understood it. And, always a critic of trendy ideas, she also was committed to the idea that creativity and chastity were not some form of primitive backwardness.

Q: Did O’Connor ever bore you over the past six years?

A: No. She’s is a riddle. At the end of the day, there is always going to be something enigmatic there. Trying answer all the questions continued to keep me interested because I never could quite get to the bottom line.

Q: This is your second biography of a literary artist who died young and only later grew to iconic stature. Is that the best way to write a biography? When the people who “knew her when” are still alive and able to comment on the “larger than life” public reputation?

A: It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I was aware of trying to get interviews with her contemporaries before they were no longer with us. I thought it was important to include their thoughts alongside the letters, manuscripts and published stories.

I interviewed one of her fellow Workshop students who said that Flannery gave looks so cold that they scared her. Those relationships are interesting because they remind you of who the person was when they were alive. Of how people were always wondering what to make of her.

Q: What is Iowa City’s legacy on Flannery O’Connor?

A: For her, the Workshop was invaluable. It was there she changed from “Mary Flannery O’Connor” to “Flannery O’Connor.” When she same to the University of Iowa, she was enrolled in the School of Journalism and wanted to be a political cartoonist. It was with Paul Engle and the Workshop that she found her craft, her vocation. It was also where she found the attention she had been seeking. The Southern writer was important at that time. That’s why people like John Crowe Ransom picked out her work and helped along her career. As self-reliant as she was, the Workshop helped her she gain the confidence she needed to decide to be a writer.

She talked about her legacy to the Workshop; even overplayed it. She said he hadn’t read any great writers before Iowa, but if you look at her high school and college records, she was reading Faulkner and Joyce long before then. But the time in Iowa was definitely transformative.

It’s also important to remember that the Workshop was offering the first MFA for creative writing in the country. So she was pioneering in that sense and benefited from the university’s vision.

I think it was very brave of her, as a person from the South, to go north. I remember that scene of her standing with a 15-pound muskrat coat that she thought she needed to wear in order to stay warm.

And I think it was very brave of her to enter a writing program that was filled with young men, former GIs, who were writing Hemmingway knockoffs. Yet this girl, who seemed much younger than her years, succeeded with the encouragement of her instructors.

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