3.22.2009

Flannery O'Connor's Listenable Life

If the time to read 400+ pages of Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor is hard to find, you can listen to a flock of amusing anecdotes recounted by biographer Brad Gooch in this short audio interview with WNYC's Leonard Lopate (podcasted on iTunes on 3/10/09 and also available on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show site).

"Fiction as an Extreme Sport"
The interview is well-paced without being brusque.  In under 20 minutes Lopate gets Gooch to recount incidents that depict many of O'Connor's distinctive qualities, including what Gooch calls her "intact" girlhood and contrariness in Georgia, her cartooning talent, the early loss of her father to lupus (the illness that also ended her life at 39), her "between-the-lines" Catholicism, her attitudes toward other writers (including Emily Dickinson! at Minute 19), her education, her inspirations and mentors, and the author's complicated relationship with her Milledgeville milieu. Her lifelong affection for the wing├ęd is not discussed, but you can read about O'Connor's precocious chicken wrangling in the first chapter, available as a .pdf from the Amazon page for Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor (too bad about the flightless title). 

Everything that Endures
In the discussion of rivals and influences (Minutes 7-10), Gooch mentions O'Connor's penchant for making shocking zingers and the stark, Sophoclean quality of her writing. He also talks about the unforgettable incidents in her stories, and the unsettling mix of comedy and tragedy that leaves readers unsure how to react. Perhaps that is one of the reasons O'Connor's work endures without fading--there is no namby-pambyness or mandarin prose to muffle the ruthless engine of human action and spiritual retribution. (For an interesting discussion of the timelessness of O'Connor's work and its religious armature, check out this essay/review by Terry Teachout in "Commentary").

39 Peacocks
Lopate repeatedly refers to O'Connor as "odd" or "eccentric" or "strange." Well, perhaps it was odd to attend daily mass at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in a 15-pound muskrat coat, or to raise 39 peacocks after illness forced her back onto the farm in Georgia (oddities gleaned from this article, which includes a portrait of the artist with bird), but her work has earned O'Connor the following of some decidedly cool cats, including Bruce Springsteen, Conan O'Brien, and Tommy Lee Jones (Minute 13:50).  It's a shame Mary Flannery O'Connor didn't live long enough to see her middle name become a mono-moniker of literary excellence, brand-worthy of two mentions in a single title.