I Dreamed I Interviewed Flannery O’Connor

I love doing interviews with thoughtful artists. It’s one of the greatest thrills of my work. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing writers like Scott Cairns and Dana Gioia, musicians like Linford Detweiler and Don and Karen Peris, and filmmakers like Patrice Leconte, Spike Jonze, Kevin Smith, and Peter Jackson. Sometimes, it’s frustrating to see how many of my dream interviews are “out of reach”… like Flannery O’Connor.

So I decided to unearth some of the most wonderful things O’Connor ever said… and imagine how a conversation with her today might go.

Please understand: This is an IMAGINARY INTERVIEW… which I offer with my tongue firmly in my cheek.

O’Connor’s “responses” were culled from online archives of O’Connor quotes from the following sources.

1 – Quoted on various Web sites (like Little Blue Light), credited to O’Connor’s lectures and essays

2 – Mystery and Manners

3 – The Habit of Being

4 – The Nature and Aim of Fiction

5 – quoted by Robert Cole in Flannery O’Connor’s South 6 – From one of numerous letters to Betty Hester (November 22 1958).

* * * *

Q: Is there a recurring theme in your stories?

A: “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.” – 5

Q: The “tone” of your writing… the audacity and the caustic, soemtimes violent nature of your scenarios… must come as a surprise to readers who expect Christian writers to be meek and mild.

A: “I don’t deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it.” – 3

Q: There are a lot of voices clamoring for superiority in the dialogue about Christianity and the arts. Some of those voices are very loud, harsh, and condemning of popular culture. What’s your perspective on that?

A: “Conviction without experience makes for harshness.” -2

Q: Have you ever seen Touched by an Angel?

A: “Today’s audience is one in which religious feeling has become, if not atrophied, at least vaporous and sentimental.” – 2

Q: Seattle Pacific University is starting a new graduate program in creative writing. This seems like a timely endeavor—contemporary “Christian writing” has become distinct in its mediocrity and dogmatism. What would be your advice to the folks heading up that program?

A: “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” -4

Q: So much of the fiction currently written by Christians has been crafted with an aim to “save souls.” Your stories do not have that propagandistic feeling. Did you think about the end result of the influence of your stories on readers much?

A: “When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God’s business.” – 3

Q: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was quickly seized by church leaders as a great work of art because it could be used as an evangelistic tool. As a novelist, do you think a work’s “evangelical potential” is a measure of its worth?

A: “The novel is an art form and when you use it for anything other than art, you pervert it.” – 1

Q: So you didn’t dwell on making the message of your stories clear?

A: “It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.” – 2

“In the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense, and I see no way for it to do this unless his moral judgment is part of the very act of seeing, and he is free to use it. I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery.” -2

Q: Popular cinema is becoming more and more a battleground of political viewpoints and worldviews. There are conservative movies, liberal movies, “Christian” movies, etc…. They usually get bad reviews from those who disagree with their messages, and raves from the “choirs” to which they preach. Then there are other films which just seem bent on appeasing our appetites for high emotion, for melodrama, for sentimentality… and for baser appetites like violence and exploited sexuality. Is this just the nature of art?

A: “The fact is that if the writer’s attention is on producing a work of art, a work that is good in itself, he is going to take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to this central meaning and design. He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses. They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole.” – 2

Q: If you were writing for today’s attention-deficit-disorder audience, would you write differently in order to gain and hold their attention?

A: “There are those who maintain that you can’t demand anything of the reader. They say the reader knows nothing about art, and that if you are going to reach him, you have to be humble enough to descend to his level. This supposes that the aim of art is to teach, which it is not, or that to create anything which is simply a good-in-itself is a waste of time. Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it. We hear a great deal about humility being required to lower oneself, but it requires an equal humility and a real love of the truth to raise oneself and by hard labor to acquire higher standards.” – 1

Q: It seems that more and more Christian media is co-opting the modes and styles of mainstream entertainment in order to present the gospel to a larger audience. Take for example the upcoming Christian version of American Idol called Gifted. Is this a valid approach?

A: “In the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells.” – 2

Q: So many times, Christians reject a work of art because of the behavior, politics, or lifestyle of the artist—for example, Michael Moore, Woody Allen or Tim Robbins. Media “watchdogs” like Movieguide frequently include attacks on artists in their reviews of those artists’ works. Is there merit to this approach?

A: “A work of art exists without its author from the moment the words are on paper, and the more complete the work, the less important it is who wrote it and why.” -2 “The intentions of the writer have to be found in the work itself, and not in his life.” – 2

Q: Do you have words of encouragement for those of us fiction writers who haven’t scored a publishing deal yet?

A: “It is better to be young in your failures than old in your successes.” -6

 

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