Interview with Jonathan Rogers: Flannery O’Connor, Violence, and Mercy

MEET THE AUTHORS

Jonathan Rogers is not only one of the most talented Christian writers for kids’ today (see our review of The Charlatan’s Boy), he’s also kept his own faith while passing through the highest echelons of academia.  He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Vanderbilt University, and just recently published a biography of Flannery O’Conner with Thomas Nelson.  An ambitious undertaking, considering O’Connor herself isn’t light or superficial reading, as evidenced by her inclusion in a lot of college literature classes.

However, Rogers has a way of speaking common to both good storytellers and the best teachers.  He makes his subject accessible to beginners without belittling or speaking down to them, while at the same time going deep enough to provide new clarity to seasoned readers.  All reasons we are very excited to talk to him today about that new biography, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor.

In fact, Rogers says in this project, he actually had one reader in mind:

my singer-songwriter friend Andy Osenga. As I wrote this book, I was writing it for intelligent, well-read Christians who had heard they were supposed to get something out of Flannery O’Connor but never had been able to. When I mentioned that to Andy early in the writing process, he said, “That’s me!” So every day when I sat down to write, I was picturing Andy: he was the one-man target audience for this book.

And that’s just one of the reasons this book may be just the thing for high school students as well as any adult looking to test the waters of her writing.  (You can actually hear an interview he did with his target audience, Andy, over at the Rabbit Room.)  But for now, let’s jump right in!

THE INTERVIEW

1.  Flannery O’Connor is very popular in some Christian circles, but I suspect in others she isn’t a household name.  Can you give us a sentence or two to orient readers who haven’t heard of her?  What makes her special, and to what literary genre or period does she belong?

Flannery O’Connor was a novelist and short story writer from Georgia–one of the great American fiction writers in the twentieth century. She is best known for her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which is frequently anthologized and taught in literature survey courses, but she also wrote two novels (Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away) and twenty or so other short stories. The terms “grotesque” and “Southern Gothic” are often used to describe her work, which is frequently violent and frequently involves characters who are morally and/or physically freakish. A lot of readers don’t understand that these are really stories about the way God’s grace works in the world. O’Connor was a devout Catholic, and she wrote the way she did because of her faith, not in spite of it (to paraphrase her own summation of things).

2.  The Violent Bear it Away was the title of one of O’Connor’s novels, and you point out in the book that it comes from Matthew 11:12, the Douay-Rheims translation: “And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.”  You also say that that phrase is “an apt image for O’Connor’s entire body of work.”  Could you explain a little of what that phrase meant to her, and how O’Connor used violence to reflect her Christian worldview?

In one letter, O’Connor told a friend, “More than ever, now it seems that the Kingdom of Heaven has to be taken by violence, or not at all. You have to push as hard as the age that is pushing against you.” She was very conscious that she was writing to an audience who believed that God was dead. So how do you speak of the things of God to people who don’t believe God exists, who share no theological language with you? As O’Connor famously said, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” That’s what all the violence and freakishness in her fiction is about; she’s shouting to the almost deaf. C.S. Lewis said that pain is a megaphone through which God gets our attention. Something similar is happening in O’Connor. Her characters are so blind and deaf to their situation that only a moment of extremity can awaken them (and, by extension, us) to reality.

3.  Unlike a lot of Christian art, O’Connor’s work isn’t sanitized.  It is filled with people who are corrupt or freakish in some terrible way, from murderers to hermaphrodites.  She once  commented about this: “if Southern writers have a tendency to write about freaks,’it is because we are still able to recognize one.”  Can you tease this out a little?  Why did she see Southern writers as better able to recognize an aberration from the ideal?

The freakishness in O’Connor’s fiction is a picture of the fact that we’re all broken, all in need of grace. We Christians speak pretty freely, even glibly about the fact that we are all broken. We sing songs about being “weak and wounded, sick and sore.” O’Connor depicts that literally, and we recoil. We’re okay with the idea of human depravity in the abstract, but fiction doesn’t deal in abstractions. Depravity is an ugly business. Sanitized people don’t need Jesus very much. One of the things I love about O’Connor’s characters is the fact that they so obviously need Jesus. Some of them are mad about it, and some of them try to run away, but they all desperately need God’s grace.

As far as the business about freaks and Southerners, that gets quoted pretty often because it’s funny, but I think it was kind of a throwaway joke for O’Connor. If I remember the context, she was making a point that Southerners were more theistic in their worldview than other Americans, with a stronger sense of sin, which gives them a better sense of what’s ultimately normal and what’s freakish. I’ve never lived outside the South, so I don’t feel qualified to judge, but it seems that would be a hard claim to support.

4.  Do you think O’Connor would still choose the same tools today?  Or put another way, do you think her stories will still be as effective for kids who have grown up on The Hunger Games?

That’s a very interesting question. I tend to think that she would use the same tools she used in the 50s and 60s, for the simple reason that these stories do still shock and astonish. A friend of mine took her high school class outside to read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” last week, and they were pretty shaken by it (in a good way). I suspect many of those kids had read Hunger Games. And they were clearly disturbed by the story. I haven’t read Hunger Games, though I have seen the movie. We should take a readers’ poll at Redeemed Reader: ask everyone who has read both Hunger Games and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which they find more disturbing. I have a feeling that O’Connor would come out way ahead on that one.

5.  What is your favorite O’Connor story?  What would you recommend for older teens and adults who might never have read her work before?

I always recommend the story “Revelation” as a starting point. As with all of her stories, an act of violence leads to a moment of revelation, but the violence is much less violent than many of her stories, and the revelation is spelled out a little more clearly. If you read that story, you can better understand what she’s doing in her other stories. As for which is my favorite, that changes a lot, but it’s usually “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “Good Country People,” or “Parker’s Back.”

6.  Finally, your fiction feels very Southern and is populated by some spiritually craggy characters that at times feel O’Connor-ish.  What kind of influence have her stories had on your own writing (i.e. The Charlatan’s Boy)?

Flannery O’Connor had a huge impact on me as a writer. She wrote in her native idiom–that is to say, Middle Georgia English, which happens to be my native idiom too. (My hometown is less than fifty miles from O’Connor’s Milledgeville.) Through reading O’Connor I came to understand that finding my literary voice would mean getting in touch with my own voice–the one I had been speaking in my whole life–not looking elsewhere.

I was an academic before I was a writer. My academic world was Renaissance and seventeenth-century England. I loved Milton and Shakespeare. I still do. But I didn’t read Paradise Lost and say, “I want to try doing that.” When I read Flannery O’Connor I said, “Oh…I speak this language already.” My reservoirs, I realized, were fuller than I had thought: the stories I grew up on, the sensibility that informed them, the turns of phrase. That was how Flannery OConnor impacted my writing. She convinced me that my native tongue could be raw material for literary art.

So grateful that Jonathan Rogers would take the time to speak with us today.  And I hope you guys will come back for our review of the book on Thursday, as well some writers we’d like to introduce you to that share some similar characteristics.

For more on Dr. Rogers, try this Feechie Love Song on for size as well as our Charlatan’s Boy review and his previous interview on boys and fatherhood.  And of course, listen to his interview with Andy at www.rabbitroom.com.

THE CONTEST

(***THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED.  Do feel free to join the conversation, though!)

We do have a copy of Jonathan’s new book, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor to give away.  Leave a sentence or two in the comments about why you’d like to read it, and we’ll pick a winner at the end of the week!

         

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20 Responses to Interview with Jonathan Rogers: Flannery O’Connor, Violence, and Mercy

  1. Emily October 6, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

    Kristina,

    So glad we have a resource like this one to recommend. Hope you enjoy!

    EW

  2. Kristina October 5, 2012 at 7:17 pm #

    I’m one of those people who picked up a “complete short stories” of O’Connor because I had heard she was a Christian and I want to read qualtiy fiction. Also, I want to prepare for the time my kids will study 20th century American literature, and my heritage is southern, so there are plenty of connecitons. That said, I had a hard time making it through. I was fascinated and disgusted, but didn’t really feel I understood her. Dr. Rogers’ comment about starting with a story like ‘Revelation’ resonated with me because I need that clearer picture of redemption. Thank you for starting me down the road to better understanding!

  3. Karen Meyer October 3, 2012 at 7:31 pm #

    Yes, Flannery O’Conner should be on my reading list, but now I’m wondering if she’d be over my head. I write for middle-grade readers and have a hard time making my villains mean enough. I’m intrigued by the title of the biography; it would help me understand her work when I tackle it.

  4. Melinda October 3, 2012 at 5:47 pm #

    I have read Flannery O’Conner, and have found it tough going. I find her short stories easier to bear than her novels. I have discovered that I like reading ABOUT her, reading her letters and such. I think I would have enjoyed knowing her personally. It is just that her stories are so very grotesque that I find myself not wanting to read to the end and not “getting” what she is doing. I’ll be interested to read “The Terrible Speed of Mercy”. Maybe it will help me “get it” a bit more?

    Thanks for the article, I was glad to read it.

  5. Emily September 28, 2012 at 10:06 am #

    Aw, thanks, Johanna. And thanks to all of you who’ve entered the contest so far. So fun to hear what Flannery has meant in your lives.

  6. johanna rogers September 28, 2012 at 6:49 am #

    I love being introduced to things on this blog. I have not read any of O’conner but she’s now on my list!

  7. Elizabeth September 27, 2012 at 9:22 am #

    My daughter loves Flannery O’Connor, and I’ve “been gonna” read her work. Now these posts have gotten me over to the bookshelf to grab that “Three by Flannery O’Connor” book and start reading. Thank you for being a catalyst to action once again.

  8. Kim September 27, 2012 at 7:54 am #

    I have not read any of O’Conner’s work, but now I am much more interested. So many books, so little free reading time. Sigh.

  9. Julia September 27, 2012 at 7:40 am #

    I’ve never read anything by Flanner O’Conner, but my children have. Now that I’m nearing the end of my homeschooling journey (except for all the grandchildren), I’d like to take time to read her along with my next-to-youngest-daughter.

  10. Jenny White September 27, 2012 at 6:09 am #

    OOO…pick me!! I fell in love with O’Connor during college. There are so many wonderful stories, and I’m planning on throwing a few into my 10th grade honors class to mix it up a bit. I’d love to read a current book on her and her life and craft. :)

  11. Anna September 26, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

    I just read O’Connor’s “Revelation” this week in my AP literature class, so this was a very timely article for me. I would love to win the book and learn more about her!

  12. Marijo Taverne September 26, 2012 at 8:18 am #

    I would like to win this book because the title is a perfect book title, because I enjoyed reading the few works by Flannery O’Conner which I have read, because I would like to learn more about O’Conner and her work.

  13. Heather September 25, 2012 at 7:55 pm #

    This book sounds fascinating, and I would love to read it as well as other titles by the author.

  14. LB September 25, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    O’Connor was one of the great loves of my college literary career but that is a long time past. It would be wonderful to revisit her work and learn more about her inspiration.

  15. Gina September 25, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    I feel I’ve missed out on this author, having never read her stories that I can remember. I’m about to add them to my library list, thanks to this interview, and I’d love to read Dr. Rogers’ book to learn more!

  16. Tim September 25, 2012 at 4:14 pm #

    I have an O’Conner short stories book on my shelf that I have not been brave enough to crack open yet. Maybe Mr. Rogers will be of help to me. :) I read his Charlatan’s Boy this past school year an loved the character development. Excited to see more.

  17. Jennifer September 25, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

    I am from Athens, not far from Milledgeville. I’ve read O’Connor and I understand what he’s saying about hearing and understanding that “voice!” But like Andy, “I’m that one,” too.

    Funny thing: I was born and raised in the South (still live in GA), and i am a big reader… but I’ve never been able to fully appreciate the dark side of most Southern Lit. I have been considering embarking upon a Southern Lit self-challenge soon. (strange how the subject keeps popping up everywhere…!) I have a short-list of authors, but O’Connor wasn’t on it. Now I’m thinking I should put her AND this bio on it! My oldest (homeschooled) daughter is reading 20th century American Literature this year… Maybe I will tweak her curriculum, too. ;)

    Thanks so much for the helps and recommendations!

  18. Nate September 25, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

    Fascinating interview! I put Jonathan’s book on my to-read list.

    I read O’Connor in college, and I teach “A Good Man is Hard to Find” today. I tell my students that whenever we finish one of her stories, we feel like we need a few minutes to recover.

    I love this quotation from N. D. Wilson (in an interview with Marvin Olasky), which has helped me “get” what O’Connor is doing: “Flannery O’Connor’s short fiction tells the story of the apostle Paul: Here’s this self-righteous, super-smart, clean-cut rich kid who dabbles in murder: He’s not throwing rocks but he is holding the coats when Stephen is murdered. Then he gets knocked off his donkey and blinded—but there’s always the promise of more coming. In O’Connor this granny gets shot by the outlaw—but the best thing that ever happened to her was getting shot by that outlaw.”

  19. Forrest September 25, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    Great interview! I happen to be one of those Christians who have tried to enjoy Flannery O’Conner but instead have come away disturbed and confused. My husband is also currently attempting to read her stories for the first time. We both appreciate her amazing writing but sometimes feel perplexed as to the redemptive value of these stories. In other words, Jonathan Rodgers’ book sounds very timely right now!

  20. Krista September 25, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    I haven’t read O’Conner for years but I have always been interested in the interplay of her narratives with her spirituality/faith. I have a theory that her constant physical pain informed much of the perspective of her writing as well.

    I would love to win this book- it sounds like just the angle I’ve been wishing for concerning O’ Conner.

    Thanks for the article, I really enjoyed it!

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