Friday Fatales: Woman of Mystery Flannery O’Connor

Friday Fatales: Women of Mystery is an occasional series in which we honor an author recognized for her contribution to the genre of mystery (as well as suspense, noir, thriller, crime fiction). 

200px-FlanneryO_Connor_normalFlannery O’Connor, the brilliant Southern writer, may not come to mind as a “woman of mystery,” but as I discovered, she focused quite a bit on the “mystery” of life.

The first time I read her short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” (about 40 years ago), I was stunned. What occurs after the car crash is the most frightening scene I’ve ever read, and nothing has matched it since. If you’ve never read it, you’ve been deprived. Stop what you’re doing and read it. Even better – click here and listen to Flannery as you read along.

A devout Catholic, Flannery O’Connor was born on March 25, 1925, in Savannah, Georgia. After graduating from the Georgia College for Women in 1945, she was accepted into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. Sadly, in 1951, she was diagnosed with lupus, which had claimed her father’s life when Flannery was fifteen years old.

While battling lupus, she completed more than two dozen short stories and two novels.

Her first novel, Wise Blood, was published in 1952; in 1979, John Huston MV5BMTQ5NDU5ODc2Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzQyNjE0Mg@@._V1._SY317_CR28,0,214,317_directed a movie based on Ms. O’Connor’s novel. I recently borrowed it from the library, and I must say, it was outstanding. I found some of the soundtrack music a bit bizarre, but the performances ~ especially by Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, and Ned Beatty were terrific. The movie kept true to the novel; in most cases the dialogue came straight from the novel.

Flannery O’Connor has several quotes about writing that I’d like to share.

“Fiction is the concrete expression of mystery — mystery that is lived,” O’Connor wrote in her essay, “The Church and The Fiction Writer.”

In The Art and Vision of Flannery O’Connor (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), author Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr. writes, “To  experience literature at its deepest levels, O’Connor argues in ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction,’ is not a matter of being educated but rather of having a mind ‘that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.’”

Brinkmeyer also notes, “In ‘Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,’ O’Connor says that great fiction does not deal with the ‘Instant Answer’ — something with which, she added, Catholics are much taken — but instead ‘leaves us, like Job, with a renewed sense of mystery.’ She explains that writers of fiction must try to achieve something on the order of what Saint Gregory wrote of Scripture — that every time it presents a fact, it also discloses a mystery.”

O’Connor once noted that “writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.” This may very well have been the side effects of her illness, but I think writers can identify with her sentiment.

“You ought to be able to discover something from your stories. If you don’t, probably nobody else will.” She believed it is better for writers to discover than to impose meaning.

Ms. O’Connor said, “The fiction writer presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes, there always has to be left over that sense of mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.”

Most of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction arises from pressure and resistance. Her writing is known for her use of the grotesque, the depiction of odd characters and intense violence. It serves a purpose, however, according to Brinkmeyer: it’s not the kind that destroys, but the kind that reveals, or should reveal.

I love Flannery’s quote on her writing technique: “You can suggest something obvious is going to happen but you cannot have it happen in a story. You can’t clobber any reader while he is looking. You divert his attention, then you clobber him, and he never knows what hit him.”

For a closer look at her short fiction, visit The New Georgia Encyclopedia.

One of her statements in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” really struck a chord with me: “When you write fiction, you are speaking with character and action, not about character and action.”

Flannery O’Connor, one of the most important writers of the 20th century, died at age 39 on August 3, 1964.

Andalusia-MainHouse

A web site, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account (@Andalusiafarm) is devoted to her home and farm in Georgia, known as Andalusia.

Come follow me on Twitter @katcop13. 

16 thoughts on “Friday Fatales: Woman of Mystery Flannery O’Connor

  1. Thank you, Kathleen. I love Flannery and have since I read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in high school. She is a fascinating person and dynamic writer. Great post!

    • I hear ‘ya, Leigh! I was hooked in junior h.s. when I read it, too! Blew me away and still gives me chills. Just picturing the events after they’ve crashed is a shocker. She likes to start with one kind of story, and end with another. So glad you enjoyed the post!

    • Hi Dot! Flannery is indeed an inspiration, in many ways. She was a clever author whom I’ve admired for decades. Enjoy ~ but be prepared ~ she uses violence and grotesque characters in the telling of her stories.

  2. I have the Library of America volume: Flannery O’Connor : Collected Works : Wise Blood / A Good Man Is Hard to Find / The Violent Bear It Away / Everything that Rises Must Converge / Essays & Letters. I dip into it frequently. O’Connor was an amazing writer!

    • Thanks for stopping by Women of Mystery, George, and commenting. That’s a great volume you possess, and I understand completely why you open it frequently. Another tidbit: Flannery got the title of her 2nd novel from Matthew 11:12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.”

    • I whole-heartedly agree, Patti! Ms. O’Connor’s craftsmanship is nothing short of amazing. My all-time fave short stories that come to mind include The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant, The Ransom of Red Chief by O. Henry, The Story of An Hour by Kate Chopin, No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth, Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl & so many more, but A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND (written in 1955!) remains permanently in 1st place for me:-)

    • Thanks, Gail!
      After Flannery lost her dad to lupus, it must have been tough to be handed the same diagnosis, ten years later. She accomplished so much in her short life span ~ and her works will live on forever.
      I really enjoyed researching her life, and her wisdom in writing is awe-inspiring.

  3. Kathleen, thank you for this. I just order Wise Blood from Netflix and reread “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Yes, it is terrifying, and what wonderful use she makes of detail. You’ve included some great quotes. Divert then clobber is something every writer of crime fiction should remember.

    • Thanks, Anita!
      Be ready, it’s a ‘strange’ movie ~ but so filled with her themes. Brad’s performance as Hazel Motes is outstanding. I watched it twice, and once more, to read along with the novel. The men responsible for bringing this movie to life were young children when Flannery lived at their parents’ CT home for almost two years (and she was working on & finished Wise Blood while living with the Fitzgerald family). For more on her friendship with Sally Fitzgerald, read here: http://articles.latimes.com/2000/jul/14/local/me-52965

    • Thanks, Clare!
      I read several sources, and enjoyed every one of them. I kept taking notes about her life & her quotes, they were fabulous. I truly learned so much from Flannery.
      Here’s a great quote about Ms. O’Connor, from Thomas Merton: “When I read Flannery O’Connor, I do not think of Hemingway, or Katherine Anne Porter or Sartre, but rather of someone like Sophocles.” Powerful!

  4. Supposedly her favorite of her own stories was “Good Country People.” If you’ve never read it, it fits into this blog’s usual themes as it does involve a theft, and a pattern of thefts in fact. Thank you for reminding me of this wonderful writer–I am lucky to have a couple of collections of her work. Work which I did not appreciate when I “had” to read some of it in school!

    • Thanks for visiting, Jeff, and commenting. I had read Flannery’s very interesting quote when it came to writing “Good Country People” (which, BTW, she wrote in four days). O’Connor stated at a Southern Writers’ Conference: “I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized that it was inevitable. This is a story that produces a shock for the reader, and I think one reason is that it produced a shock for the writer.”
      Her remarkable talent is breath-taking!

Comments are closed.