How Flannery saved the day
by Ann Napolitano
I slumped onto the couch and told my husband that the novel simply didn’t work. I was a year into A Good Hard Look, and it already felt like a lost year. Maybe I should throw it away and start over, I said.
I didn’t know what was broken, so I couldn’t fix it. The main character, Melvin Whiteson, was rudderless. The story was aimless. There was no spine, no uniting thread.
My husband was seated across from me; he leaned forward. He loves nothing more than to solve a problem, and he’s a writer himself, so he knows what he’s talking about. I’m stubborn though, and I wanted sympathy, not a solution. So instead of listening, I let my attention drift. I told myself I would be fine if I never published a second novel. I imagined possible alternative careers: therapist (too much education required), chef (terrible hours), personal assistant (I had done this for almost a decade; I was qualified, but not interested). I closed my eyes in an act of dramatic self-pity, and listened to my husband sigh in response.
When I opened my eyes I found myself looking at the bookshelf above his head. My eyes fell on a book I hadn’t picked up in nearly a decade. It was a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters, The Habit of Being. I studied the spine of the book as if it had something to tell me. And it did, in a way. The thought fell upon me slowly, with the weight of a heavy blanket: Flannery O’Connor should be in the novel.
This seems like a crazy idea, even now. Here are a few reasons why: (1) Flannery is a Southern icon, and I am from New Jersey; (2) I had read her stories in college, and been awed by them, but I’d also found them abrasive and upsetting; (3) I had never even aspired to write historical fiction. Incorporating a real, well-known person into my make-believe world seemed fraught with traps and complications. Could I possibly pull that off?
Despite my skepticism, the words continued to blink in my head. Flannery O’Connor should be in the novel. The idea was certainly intriguing, and what if this was an actual flash of inspiration? I was in no position to turn that away. I decided to approach the idea by reading everything I could get my hands on. I re-read Flannery’s stories (still shocking, still brilliant), her essays and two novels. I read the one existing biography on her, and several critical essays about her work. Then I re-read The Habit of Being, and to be honest, this is when my apprehension began to wane. Flannery’s letters are wonderful—in correspondence she is irreverent and sarcastic, kind and generous. Through the letters, I followed her path away from her Southern town and domineering mother to graduate school. She began her writing life in New York City, where she had dear friends and a life that satisfied her. When she felt her shoulders begin to tighten during a harsh Northern winter, she attributed the discomfort to arthritis. But by the time she arrived home to visit her mother, she was desperately ill. She was only 26 years old when she received the diagnosis that was also a death sentence. She had disseminated lupus—the same disease that had killed her father.
Flannery settled down on her mother’s farm, Andalusia, and poured herself into her work. The doctors gave her five years to live; she took 13. And during that time she produced some of the best fiction we have.
I flew to Atlanta, rented a car and drove to Andalusia. I walked across the speckled grass, and sat on Flannery’s white porch. A story began to grow in my head; pieces that seemed to have no business being in the same room came together. Melvin Whiteson met Flannery O’Connor at a Southern wedding; I held my breath, and followed the characters deeper into the narrative. Flannery, and the bravery with which she lived her life, soon became the spine of A Good Hard Look. Raymond Chandler famously said, “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” My version of that was to have Flannery O’Connor show up, on crutches.
The novel took six additional years to write; I slumped on the couch in despair many more times, but I never again considered throwing the book away. The crazy idea had become a real, three-dimensional world. Flannery walked among her beloved peacocks, turning her sharp eyes on the world I was creating; my new struggle lay in making sure it met her approval.
A Good Hard Look is the second novel by Ann Napolitano, who received her M.F.A. from New York University and lives in New York City with her family.