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).
Flannery 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 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.
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