Annie Spans the Gap, Part 2

This editorial statement from issue 88 is continued from yesterday. Read Part 1 here

Illustration by Alissa Berkhan

Illustration by Alissa Berkhan

In 1994, Image was in its infancy, and I was living in Wichita and working with the Milton Center, a nonprofit devoted to fostering excellence in creative writing by people of religious faith. Thanks to a major grant, we were able to put on a conference, the highlight of which was giving an award to Annie Dillard. We chose as a theme the phrase “Spanning the Gap,” taken from Holy the Firm and included in the epigraph in yesterday’s post. We wanted to explore the way writing itself might span the gap between here and eternity.

I was assigned the task of introducing her, which more or less scared the hooey out of me. I had only read a few scattered pieces of hers, and the only full book I was able to read in preparation was Holy the Firm, because it is so short.

I remember very little about the introduction, except that I described her as “a nature writer on speed.” What I lacked in insight I tried to make up in verve. Her reading was of course electrifying as she paced back and forth, declaiming from one book or another. The audience was pleased. [Read more…]

Annie Spans the Gap, Part 1

The following appears as the editorial statement in Image issue 88.

Annie Dillard illustrated by Alissa Berkhan

Illustration by Alissa Berkhan

There is no such thing as an artist: there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows. When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? When the candle is out, who needs it? But the world without light is wasteland and chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination. What can any artist set on fire but his world?… What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that’s burnt out, any muck ready to hand? His face is flame like a seraph’s, lighting the kingdom of God for the people to see; his life goes up in the works; his feet are waxen and salt. He is holy and he is firm, spanning all the long gap with the length of his love, in flawed imitation of Christ on the cross stretched both ways unbroken and thorned. So must the work be also, in touch with, in touch with, in touch with; spanning the gap from here to eternity, home.

—Annie Dillard

Few books to come across my desk lately have stirred so many emotions as The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New by Annie Dillard. In the Atlantic, the critic William Deresiewicz says that the book “might just as easily be called The Absence,” because the author has published nothing new for years. It’s a clever lead-in, but devoid of substance. Our online culture, with its constant demand for hitting the feeds at peak times every day, may dictate constant publication unto death as a requirement for any self-respecting author, but thank God Annie Dillard grew up before the advent of the internet. I prefer to look on her body of work and celebrate the abundance. [Read more…]

The Confessions of X: An Interview with Suzanne M. Wolfe, Part 2

By Gregory Wolfe and Suzanne M. Wolfe

Continued from yesterday. Read Part 1 here.

Suzanne M. WolfeGW: One of the most interesting aspects of The Confessions of X is the way that X herself responds to Augustine’s intellectual passions, from his Manichean phase to Platonism. She’s not an intellectual but she’s no pushover and she instinctively challenges Augustine…

SMW: The last thing I wanted this novel to be was either a hagiographical account of the Great Man, Augustine, by the little woman or an intellectual debate about theology. And when I reached deeply into who X was and what her life experience was and how that had shaped her, I realized a couple of things:

1) That only a remarkable woman in her own right would fall in love with a man as fiercely intelligent as Augustine, so she would be no dummy;

2) Lacking a formal education, her grasp of intellectual and theological issues would be through her experience and her instinct. At one point in the novel she says, “I think better in pictures.” This is true to her experience with a father who was a mosaic layer. But it also reveals a more sacramental understanding of the world, a type of understanding in which women, I believe, excel. She and Augustine complement one another. More than that, X provides a necessary check to his tendency towards abstraction both as a Manichean and as a Platonist.

GW: In a sense, she’s a natural incarnationalist, even though you depict her as living in a space between her childhood pagan upbringing and Augustine’s Christianity…

SMW: Not only her experience with art through her father but her own experience of motherhood make her an incarnationalist. For her, beauty has a form; love has a form. She says: “Grace, for me, is flesh and blood, bones and sinew, someone whom my mouth can name.” [Read more…]

The Confessions of X: An Interview with Suzanne M. Wolfe, Part 1

By Gregory Wolfe and Suzanne M. Wolfe

51LiK2wmwIL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Earlier this week, HarperCollins/Nelson released The Confessions of X, Suzanne M. Wolfe’s second novel. Image editor Gregory Wolfe interviewed her about the book.

GW: So I guess doing this interview with you is a case of raw nepotism. You OK with that?

SMW: I prefer my nepotism medium rare.

GW: Your second novel, The Confessions of X, has just been published. What is it about?

SMW: It’s the story of St. Augustine’s concubine told in her own voice—her “Confessions,” if you will. She is a shadowy figure in Augustine’s Confessions. He simply refers to her as “Una”—the One. The first chapter begins with her as an old woman waiting in the courtyard outside the room in which Augustine is dying in the city of Hippo Regius. As she waits for night to fall, she recounts the story of her life and how she came to meet Augustine in Carthage, became his concubine, and bore him a son. And what happens to her after he famously casts her off.

GW: Why did you decide to write her story?

SMW: In religion class at my convent school when I was twelve, I raised my hand and asked who this mysterious woman was in Augustine’s Confessions. Sister Bernadette replied: “No one knows. She is lost to history.” That phrase “lost to history” stayed with me. I thought of all the great women in history whose lives have been eclipsed by the men they loved. Forty years later, I decided to go looking for the concubine so she could tell her story. [Read more…]

Wilberforce: An Interview with H.S. Cross, Part 1

By Gregory Wolfe and H. S. Cross
WilberforceIn September 2015, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published 
Wilberforce, the debut novel by H.S. Cross. Image editor Gregory Wolfe recently interviewed Ms. Cross about the book.

GW: Your debut novel, Wilberforce, is set in an English public school (what in America we’d call a private school) in Yorkshire in 1926. But readers would be wrong to assume a Hogwarts-like idyllic world. It’s a hothouse in a way: a group of adolescents cooped up with one another and an all-male environment. But I suppose that setting is a bit like Jane Austen’s quip about a country house: It’s enclosed and thus ripe for drama?

HSC: I would never call Hogwarts idyllic (people get killed there all the time), but Austen is right. Being confined in a remote boarding school intensifies conflict and makes it harder to escape it.

In the boarding school, the characters put a lot of energy into running away from their problems, but there’s not very far for them to run. When they try to leave the school, there’s a sense that this might be the only place for them—the only place that will take them, or the place oddly most suited to them. Even Wilberforce winds up defending and pleading for the place, though he’d reviled it earlier.

The English public school has been called a “total institution,” meaning it exerts control over every aspect of a person’s life and identity (similar to prison or the military). Choosing such a school as your enclosed environment lets you put extra pressure on your characters because of the way the institution shapes them and concentrates their ordeals through a common culture, common language, common experience, and common goals. [Read more…]


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