Everybody's got a hungry heart
WHAT DO YOU THINK READERS ARE HUNGRY FOR?
We have a very abstracted culture right now. For example, we're aware of all of our neighbors, but often we don't even know their names. We often don't know anything about them. Part of the reason for the rise in confessional television is that people hunger to know somebody deeply. They want to see someone revealing all their failings and their sins and the terrible things they've done. It's grotesque, and it is an escapist way of dealing with what the real hunger is—which is to understand other people to get to a deeper understanding of ourselves.
I was at a dinner party with some friends, and one man confessed that he was swimming across a deep lake, started to drown, and felt a hand pull him up by the hair. There was actually nobody around, but that pull saved him from drowning. He'd never told that to anybody before because there was no venue in his life for doing that. It was late at night and we had all been talking, and there was a kind confessional feeling amongst us. In a sense, that's what fiction allows us to do: to get into those deep moments of revelation, a sense of being lifted out of the ordinary realm up to the supernatural.
All of us can see the wonderful portrait of God that all of humanity is, and fiction presents us with those portraits of God. I was just in El Salvador and ran into a nun who is working with the very poor in a village. She saw a boy who had found a banana on the side of the road, and when he saw an old man sitting nearby, he decided to give the old man the banana and eat the peel for himself. The boy said he gave the banana to the old man because he seemed to need it more than the boy thought he himself did. He was about 9 years old. The nun said she rushed toward the little boy because she wanted to see what the face of God looked like. All of us are seeking the face of God, in fiction and everywhere, whether we know it or not.
What Stories Are
We often have no idea what time it is when we're truly fascinated with our reading. If the fiction writer is particularly good, and his or her world is far different from our own—when we're in the presence, say, of an old-fashioned page-turner—we may be slightly disoriented, even ga-ga, when our non-fictive world makes its sudden and imperious demands. Lostness, is, in fact, often what we're after in our reading. Escapist fiction is frequently thought to be the tawdry stuff that our fellow passengers seem to prefer on airplanes, but I have been held as wholly in suspense by Marguerite Duras as by Agatha Christie; I have escaped my life with equal completeness in the fiction of James Lee Burke and P. D. James, or Raymond Carver and Raymond Chandler.
Truth be told, we are not really "escaping," we are "entering into." When he was the fiction editor at Esquire, Gordon Lish put together an anthology of stories that he titled The Secret Life of Our Times. And that is precisely what stories do: give us access to otherwise hidden, censored, unsayable thoughts and feelings now shiftily disclosed in the guise of plot and character. In the Star Trek phrase, it's a mind meld. The hungers of our spirits are fed by sharing in the glimpsed interiority of others.
Willa Cather once said that first-rate writers cannot be defined, they can only be experienced. She meant that their greatness was not in the formal features of their writing but in the salutary effect their stories have on our hearts and minds. John Gardner wrote that "The great artist, the 'genius,' to use the old-fashioned word, is the [writer] who sees more connection between things than [ordinary people] can see." I finally think our need for stories is our need to find those connections, and to have confirmed for us the theology we hold secret in our heart, that even the least of us are necessary to the great universal plot in ways we hadn't imagined.
How do you see your artistic expression as a writer as sacramental?
A sacrament is a visible sign of invisible grace. Writing is a way of communicating what's going on in your prayer experience and your life experience to point out graced events in your life. The examination of conscience that a lot of the religious do at the end of the day is to point out when you were listening to God, when you had evidence of God, when you may have turned away from God, or when you refused an invitation that was obviously there.
As I mention in my essays in A Stay Against Confusion, what I've taken from the liturgy a lot of the times is a respect for narrative and the recognition that Jesus was a storyteller. Knowing that, I became aware of a sanctification of writing and storytelling. I'm rather sure a doctor probably would have looked at Jesus as a healer and a lawyer might say Jesus is a guy who argues with the Pharisees and corrects them.
Fiction is constantly talking about people—maybe yourself but also others—and how they have responded to God's invitation, how they might have rejected it or maybe had a crisis in life and made a decision for or against the right thing. Writing is a way of communicating essentially what happens in prayer and discernment; it's a representation of what is in many ways ephemeral and abstract and intangible. It's a subtle communication with God that you try to make into a palpable, tangible form for other people.
Does this take you to a higher ground? Is this about spiritual growth for you?
It is. The source of my writing and the source of my prayer are almost exactly the same, as far as I can locate them. Often I find myself learning things from prayer that I wouldn't otherwise have known, getting some kind of solace or some direction I would not have otherwise had. Sometimes in prayer, there's a question that I have in my mind. I throw it out there and may not hear a voice of God about that. But inevitably, someone I talk to during the day gives me God's answer without knowing it. I've gotten phone calls where almost the first thing the person says on the phone is exactly what I wanted to hear God say to me. That often happens in writing, too.
Just thinking about things doesn't solve questions for me. Writing it down puts it away—in some ways writing is a way of shutting doors as much as opening them. If I've written about something, it's done and I can move on to something else.
Is it the same whether you're writing essays or fiction?
In almost every essay I've written, somebody's invited me to do something that I may not have wanted to write when I was first asked. But then something would be triggered inside me, and I would think, "Ah, OK, I should do something about this." In fiction you don't get assignments. In fact, nobody really ever asks you to do anything.
How then do you come up with your book ideas, such as the very personal story of Hitler and his relationship with his niece in Hitler's Niece?
In the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, there is a meditation on the two standards of good and evil. I thought of Hitler and how he seduced an entire nation. It's very easy for somebody to say, "If I had lived in Nazi Germany, I would not have followed Hitler." But he was a master manipulator. It was reported by several people that he would like to hear a person talk for an hour without saying much himself—and this was a guy who usually gave monologues for four hours at a time—and he would figure them out, what they needed, what they wanted. He learned what their goals in life were and what they were afraid of, and then he used all those things to his advantage.
We have to be aware that this is happening to us all the time; that there are some people who are using us.
Do you think long and hard about the point you want to hit home, in subtle ways, throughout a story?
Often it's a compulsion to write something, and as I'm writing I have to figure out why I wanted to write this or what the obsession is all about. Sometimes people will ask, "Why are you writing that?" or "I would never read a book like that," and I have to think why it was interesting to me and what it was I was trying to get rid of.
With Hitler's Niece I finally realized it had to do with that meditation on the two standards. If you're going to talk about good, it's one thing, but what about facing evil, confronting it, and trying to solve it? That's a different thing. Often people avoid it because it makes them uneasy, but I thought it was necessary to confront it. And by confronting it, you diminish it.
As a college professor, what are you seeing with young people and their reading habits? One of the things that we try to do in the classroom is show why good literature is good and why bad literature is bad. Often if you give the general reader a choice, they'll choose the bad.
In the classroom I once took lines from Dylan Thomas' poetry and juxtaposed them with lines I wrote paraphrasing Thomas, alternating the two on the page. I asked the students to choose the best line and they always chose the paraphrase, which was just terrible stuff next to one of the great poems of Dylan Thomas.
Did they choose the paraphrase because it's easier?
Yes. And that's what happens in films and a lot of literature these days: taking the easiest way where I don't have to think; if I don't have to really invest myself, then it is the option of choice.
Do you like to be called a Catholic writer?
If a Catholic writer calls me a Catholic writer, I'm proud, but I'm suspicious when other people call me a Catholic writer. It seems like the latter is saying, "I don't have to pay attention to you. You're not of my club or my tribe." It's a way of minimizing or parochializing what you're doing. With other Catholics, though, it's more to say, "We're happy with what you're doing; we connect with what you're saying." So if it's a way of mitigating the message, of shutting you off and saying people don't have to pay attention to you, then it's a potential negative, a way of qualifying your work.
What do you think your writing would be like if you weren't Catholic?
If I weren't Catholic I'd be much more cynical and sarcastic. I'd have a bleaker view of the world. I write with optimism to a certain degree, even if it's kind of submerged. Catholicism, or religious belief in general, turns every tragedy into a comedy because you know that, despite all the travails we're put through, there is a happy ending.
This interview was conducted by Maureen Abood, literary editor of U.S. Catholic.All active news articles