Having chronicled the life of New York poet Frank O’Hara, Brad Gooch has turned his attention to Flannery O’Connor, whose A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories electrified the 1950s literary scene. Gooch’s biography of the Southern short-story maven, written with the support of an NEH fellowship, will be published early next year by Little, Brown. His other works include three novels, a collection of short stories, and the memoir-advice book, Finding the Boyfriend Within. IQ recently asked Gooch, professor of English at William Paterson University, to comment on O’Connor and other things literary.
What drew a New Yorker to Flannery O’Connor?
I’ve loved her stories since I first read them as a grad student in New York City in the late seventies. O’Connor once said that the Southern setting of her stories was “just an accent; it’s not the essence of what you’re trying to do.” I guess I’m living proof of their universality.
O’Connor has been called a master of the short story. What makes hers work?
For O’Connor, writing short stories was an extreme sport. She used shock and surprise to masterful effect. You start out reading about a lazy day on a farm and before you can think twice a Bible salesman has stolen the wooden leg of a young lady in a hayloft.
O’Connor’s stories are sometimes violent and grotesque. How did a nice Southern girl come to write such dark stories?
You’re asking the same question asked in even more shocked tones by her proper maiden aunts. “I don’t know where Mary Flannery met those people she wrote about,” said her Aunt Mary, “but it was certainly not in my house.”
Southern gothic is a label frequently applied to O’Connor’s work. What makes Southern gothic Southern? And what makes it gothic?
O’Connor preferred “grotesque” to “gothic.” There aren’t any ghosts, or bats in belfries, in her stories. But she found lots of Southern weirdness hiding in plain sight on the family farm or in the papers—she got “The Misfit” from a story in the Atlanta newspaper.
O’Connor shared an intimate correspondence with Betty Hester, a fan turned friend, over the course of nine years. Those letters were recently opened. Any surprises?
At a crucial moment in their friendship, Hester confided to O’Connor that she had been dishonorably discharged from the military, most likely for lesbian activity. The depth of O’Connor’s unconditional love, support, and candor was surprising.
Who were O’Connor’s favorite authors?
Poe, Joyce, Gogol, Faulkner, Mauriac, Bernanos, Conrad, Lardner.
Who did she think was overrated?
She wasn’t very kind to some of her fellow Southern writers—McCullers, Capote, or Williams. She thought To Kill a Mockingbird a “wonderful children’s book.”
How did being a Catholic living in the Bible Belt influence O’Connor’s work?
She was mesmerized by the Bible thumpers. Only two Catholic priests appear in her stories.
O’Connor died from lupus at age 39. If she’d lived, do you think her best years as a writer would have been behind or in front of her?
That’s one of those “What if the South had won the Civil War?” unanswerable questions. Some of her last stories were surely among her greatest, especially “Parker’s Back.”
What is your favorite work by O’Connor and why?
“Revelation.” It’s Dante meets Tobacco Road.
What made poet Frank O’Hara tick?
The live performance piece that was New York City in the fifties and sixties.
Through the magic of time travel, you can invite O’Connor and O’Hara to a dinner party. Who is the fourth?
James Joyce. They’re all Irish Catholics, and he and Frank could run up a big bar tab.
So, is a good man really hard to find?
Depends what the meaning of “is” is.
What talent would you most like to have?
Today I’m wishing I were a film director.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Finally finding a way to work a sentence about the boll weevil into Flannery.