It was fellow Irish writer Claire Keegan who introduced me to Flannery O’Connor. Claire eulogised about Flannery so much at a class I took with her, that I ran out that day to buy Flannery’s first short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. Before that I thought (presumed?) that Flannery was a man, possibly Irish. That was about twelve years ago and I have been a lover of Flannery’s work ever since. I’m re-reading that first collection now and still finding things to marvel at in it.
Mary Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925; she was an only child and her great grandparents had emigrated from Ireland. I dislike the expression, ‘she was before her time’, because it’s an impossible thing – Flannery was of her time, obviously – but she had a modern outlook and was a sassy woman, despite being a devoted Catholic. Like many female writers, Flannery didn’t marry or have children – art and family life are often a poor mix. She did have plenty of close male friends but lost one to the priesthood and another to marriage with somebody else.
She believed in using authentic language in her stories – the language of her homeplace – and she did this to great effect. Her characters’ voices get into the reader’s ear and are totally believable. Her style is straightforward with occasional flashes of brilliant imagery. Though her fiction is often rough and harsh in subject matter, it’s also funny and moving. She doesn’t shy away from difficult things: motiveless murder, suicide and violence are some of her themes but there is always a subtle morality beating around the edges of the narrative. Her female characters are strong and opinionated, sometimes not altogether likeable, but they are always feisty and individualistic, which I love.
Flannery herself seems to have been mildly eccentric – she was obsessed with birds: she made suits of clothes for her chickens as a child and kept up to forty peacocks at one time. She suffered from lupus (the disease which killed her father) and was often ill but when she went to Lourdes she said ‘I prayed for my book not my bones’. She didn’t have any time for the romantic image of the artist as lonely and sensitive, believing instead that the artist should live fully in her community. Neither did she believe in ‘sinister calculation’ on the part of the writer – she thought writers should just write – and the ‘learned and literary interpretations’ of her work often appalled her.
Flannery O’Connor died at the age of 39 from lupus; she wrote two novels and 32 short stories. If you haven’t already read her, seek her out. She’s well worth it.