Hello and welcome to my blog, Author Interviews. My name is Fiona Mcvie.
Let’s get you introduced to everyone, shall we? Tell us your name. What is your age?
Christine Flanagan. Still on the sunny side of 50.
Fiona: Where are you from?
New Jersey Proud, USA.
Fiona: Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born and raised in New Jersey, one of four kids.My hometown is famous for the discovery of the world’s first nearly complete dinosaur skeleton, in 1858. As a kid, I was always digging in the backyard, finding broken china and bones. I thought everything was a treasure.
I’ve lived in Rochester, Boston, Dublin and Honolulu—but I love being settled back home in NJ. Growing up, we spent as much time as we could at the beach—and that’s where we continue to spend ourfree time. My family now includes the two D’s (husband and son), plus ten pets with fur, gills, claws, and shells.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news.
My book THE LETTERS OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR AND CAROLINE GORDON will be released in October, 2018 by University of Georgia Press. This is such an exciting project for me. Caroline Gordon was a mentor of Flannery O’Connor, one of my favorite short story writers. For over three years, I searched all kinds of archives to locate their correspondence—a master class for anyone interested in the elements of writing fiction.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I can remember writing stories for as long as I’ve been reading. As a kid I was bored during school, and I’d sit writing stories in class. That probably kept me out of trouble, because it looked like I was doing work.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
There was an old manual typewriter in our house and I would sit and type stories until my fingers hurt. I would include some kind of plot twist at the end—or a question the reader had to figure out. Now, I see that’s when I first understood writing to an audience.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
Long ago, I my first book was a collection of short stories. Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, Sherwood Anderson, and Anton Chekhov were the writers who most deeplyaffected me. My stories, alas, were never published as a collection, but that first collection was titled HEART FAILURES.
For this current book, THE LETTERS OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR AND CAROLINE GORDON, I was inspired by the first writing I ever read by Caroline Gordon. I found it in a book called LETTERS TO A FICTION WRITER edited by Frederick Busch—a book that contained letters by famous writers to other writers. Caroline Gordon’s letter to Flannery O’Connor was a nine-page single-spaced letter giving O’Connor feedback on her first book. The letter was staggering, simply amazing: generous and intelligent. I couldn’t believe that fiction writers today didn’t know about Caroline Gordon. She was a remarkable writer and teacher, and friend to many of the 20th century’s most impressive fiction writers.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
I wanted my book’s tile to be UNEARTHING THE MASTER CLASS OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR AND CAROLINE GORDON—but the publisher thought we needed to be clearer about the contents. I was too tired to argue with them—but, more than that, I’m smart enough to know that I’m the dumb one when it comes to this publishing thing. I defer to their expertise always. University of Georgia Press has been wonderful to work with.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style? Is there anything about your style or genre that you find particularly challenging?
I like literary fiction and creative nonfiction, journalism and biography. I like clear and strong writing, and I like writing that makes me see the world in a new way. There’s no single genre that offers good writing, so I like to wander around all kinds of material.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
THE LETTERS OF FLANNERY AND CAROLINE are the actual, unabridged letters between these two American women fiction writers who corresponded from 1951 through 1964. For me, the letters reveal so much about each woman. They only met in person about eight times over this thirteen year period, but each woman was the other’s champion and defender—despite a lot of personality differences. Throughout their correspondence, Gordon could be tough on O’Connor—but O’Connor was serious about her writing, a resilient and humble student, and determined to become better.
Although this is a book about Flannery and Caroline (as I fondly think of them), it is a deeply personal project. As a young writer, I had a champion, teacher and friend like Caroline Gordon. I can attest to how powerful this relationship can be. A young woman writer, in particular, feels such gratitude when they are helped by a mentor—a mentor who gives good critiques that help you become a stronger writer.
Fiona: To craft your works, do you have to travel? Before or during the process?
Finding the letters was incredibly fun detective work, and I travelled as many places as I could to locate the letters. When I couldn’t travel, I hired local researchers. I’m lucky that I’m a college teacher, so this is considered part of my work as a scholar.
Fiona: Who designed the cover?
The artwork—the images of Flannery and Caroline—were done by the talented Lynn Pauley. She’s a highly accomplished illustrator, artist, and teacher—and she is my sister-in-law. Her work is featured on my web site [https://wordpress.com/post/flanneryandcaroline.com/230] and on hers: www.lynnpauley.com. Go hire her or purchase her artwork.
Fiona: Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
There is a generosity between these two women writers that many scholars seem to overlook. They weren’t like sisters or bestfriends; but there was a strong mutual respect.We live in a culture where sniping, arguing women often receive attention. Many people who know the Flannery-Caroline relationship want to emphasize how they alienated one another. I prefer to see the honesty of the relationship, in all its complexity.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have captured your interest? Who is your favorite writer, and what is it about their work that really strikes you?
Most recently: I love Hope Jahren’s LAB GIRL and Tara Westover’s EDUCATED. Both women are remarkable writers. Both write nonfiction and tell stories that transcend their particular circumstances. Their work engages me, intellectually and emotionally. They are utterly brilliant.
Fiona: Outside of family members, name one entity who supported your commitment to become a published author.
My friend, teacher and writer Melanie Rae Thon. She’s my Caroline Gordon, the person who has been most generous and most honest with me. Unlike Flannery and Caroline, however, she has been sister and best friend.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
For me? That’s hard. I don’t feel successful enough to use that word—I would call teaching my career, I suppose.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
A loaded question. While writing this book, so many things occurred in my life—things that made me question why I was pursuing this project when no one, absolutely no one, cared about it. It was not going to make me rich (or any income whatsoever). No one in my immediate circle grasps why this work is so important to me. As a mother, I feel incredible guilt when I travel for work and leave my son—for what? For this?
But I would do it again. For one thing, there are people who care about this project. And that’s very rewarding: to feel like I’ve contributed something to the world’s understanding of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon. But even more, working on this teaches me to be true to myself, to pursue my interests simply because they are important and valuable to me.
Fiona: Did you learn anything during the writing of your recent book?
If you want to learn about writing fiction, you must read Caroline Gordon’s letters to O’Connor. Gordon was a remarkable teacher—well-read and insightful. I have learned an immense about writing and about teaching.
More specifically? Gordon drills down on things like narrative voice—and how the narrative voice should be distinct from the character’s voice (with obviously exceptions). She discusses elements of dialogue and setting in a way I’ve never heard anyone communicate. She uses examples from literary classics that have re-educated me. (Her one required reading for fiction writers would be Madame Bovary by Flaubert.)
As a teacher, to read her letters alongside other research—I read a ton of her nonfiction and a bit of her fiction while working on this book—shows me how she organized and communicated her ideas about writing and shared them with others.
Fiona: If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
Well, duh: Meryl Streep could play Caroline Gordon and Natalie Portman could play Flannery O’Connor. Or Sally Field could play Caroline and Claire Danes could play Flannery. Or Holly Hunter and Saoirse Ronan… Or Frances McDormand and Sally Hawkins….
Fiona: Any advice for other writers?
If you aren’t self-motivated (I’m not), find a class, a group, or a deadline to help you get the words down on the page. Worry about editing later. Write first.
Fiona: Anything specific you want to tell your readers?
If you are a fan of Flannery or Caroline, invite me to speak or Skype with your class, writers group, or book club. I’ve been working on this alone for a long time—I would be thrilled to talk to others about it.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
The books on my night table: Madeline L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet; Marianne Wiggins, John Dollar; and the O. Henry Prize Stories 2017.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
Sammy the Seal by Syd Hoff.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
My friends make me laugh.Steel Magnolias makes me cry.
Fiona: Is there one person, past or present, you would love to meet? Why?
Oprah! Because if I were meeting her we’d be talking about my book!
Fiona: Do you have any hobbies?
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
Bingeworthy series: Luther,Grandchester, Trapped (Iceland).
To laugh: Will and Grace, SNL
Fiona: Favorite foods, colors, music?
Pizza. Ocean blue. Bruce Springsteen, P!nk, Kurt Elling, Beyonce…
Fiona: Imagine a future where you no longer write. What would you do?
Sing? (no) Act? (no) Paint? (no) Raise birds? (maybe)
Fiona: You only have 24 hours to live how would you spend that time?
Hanging with my little D.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone?
Fiona: Do you have a blog or website readers can visit for updates, events and special offers?
Website and blog: www.flanneryandcaroline.com