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Finally, Flannery
First O’Connor biographer in decades kicks off his national book tour in Savannah

SHE SPENT most of her life elsewhere, but there’s no denying the impact that Savannah had on Flannery O’Connor.

The great writer was born in 1925 at the old St. Joseph’s on Habersham — the Rose of Sharon apartments occupy the spot now — and grew up in a home on Charlton Street a stone’s throw from the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, where the devout Catholic attended Mass.

Subsequent ventures took her to Iowa City for the Writer’s Workshop there, to New York, and to Andalusia, her country home outside Milledgeville, Ga.

It’s been a long time since a biography of the great writer has appeared on shelves, but this February marks the debut of Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (Little, Brown).

Gooch kicks off his national book tour, appropriately enough, in Savannah on Feb. 26 at Trinity United Methodist Church. We spoke to Gooch last week.

Why are there so few O’Connor bios?

Brad Gooch: What happened is Sally Fitzgerald, a friend of O’Connor’s who wrote about her and edited her letters, was appointed her official biographer by Regina O’Connor, Flannery’s mother. She was working on a biography for over 20 years, and then she died and never completed it. That sort of sewed everything up for a long time, and everyone was waiting for that book. That’s the simple explanation (laughs).

What were your primary sources?

Brad Gooch: Interviewing people. We’re dealing with an age group where it became very timely to get to certain people. I interviewed Robert Giroux, O’Connor’s editor, who then passed away a few months ago, Elizabeth Hardwick, who was with her at Yaddo in New York, who then died about a year ago. Those kinds of interviews were key.

And I talked to or had letters from over 50 women who went to college with her at Georgia State College for Women. Then there are different archives at Milledgeville, at the college.

A year ago these letters from Betty Hester, a friend of O’Connor’s, that had been sealed for 20 years opened up at Emory University. So that was exciting, to read 250 new letters from her.

It was also important, for me anyway, to go to all these places. So I went to Lourdes in France, the one time O’Connor left the country. Iowa City, Connecticut, Milledgeville, and Savannah. Atlanta, where she was for a year and a half. I think it does change something when you actually see these places. It’s always a little different than your idea of them.

All her travel disproves the myth that she was some kind of reclusive hermit.

Brad Gooch: She actually had this pretty big life. Also she was very involved with people. She became this famous cult figure in her lifetime. In the afternoons she would “receive” people on her back porch at Andalusia, and all these cars would drive up. So she had a lot of friendships with writers, intellectuals of the time, and friends. She gave over 60 talks around the country over 10 years. She was actually surprisingly active.

She had a pose of being kind of reclusive, church lady on a farm in the middle of Georgia. But actually she was pretty engaged.

You spent a lot of time in Savannah.

Brad Gooch: Savannah was one of the places I hadn’t been before I started writing this book. That’s a good example of going somewhere and it not being exactly what you thought. I wasn’t quite prepared for the sort of Venetian beauty and extravagance, all these squares. But just seeing where O’Connor’s home was, and the Cathedral looming across the square, all of that just became clearer, about how she grew up. You start to see that she was from a certain segment of Southern society, the “proper lady” segment. And her place in that society was as a Catholic in a Protestant world. So she was always a particular subset of Southern lady, I guess.

I’ve always wondered about the staunch Savannah Catholic moving to Baptist middle Georgia.

Brad Gooch: There was a shocking displacement for her, and you see that in her stories, where there are actually very few Catholic characters. I think there are only two priests in all of her stories. The kind of religion she usually portrays is generally a Protestant kind of evangelical religion.

How much of that is satire, and how much is her just channeling her environment?

Brad Gooch: That’s what’s always hard to follow. It’s part of the enigma of O’Connor’s point of view. She erases herself so much from the stories in a way. You could definitely see it as satire, making fun of the enthusiastic religion in these people. But at the same time she seems attracted and drawn to it.

Sometimes it’s reportorial. When I first looked into her life I thought of her stories as extreme folk art, as works of high imagination. Then you discover how accurate her dialogue could be, and how accurate are her descriptions of a farm or a town.

She’s a serious writer and she did have faith and she was taking on these issues of death often. So there’s definitely more there than just a kind of Jonathan Swift satire.

I think she had it as a kid. In the book you can see she wanted to be a cartoonist, and some of the stories she wrote in high school were pure satire. She was sort of the snotty, too-smart-for-her-own-good girl who makes fun of everyone around her because she felt alienated. But by the time she came back to Georgia and had lupus and was living on the farm and wrote a lot of her great stories, she obviously had more sympathy and empathy with the human condition.

You mention in the book how uncomfortable she was talking or writing about sex. Often the more sexually repressed a person seems, the more they’re actually thinking about sex. Does that apply to O’Connor?

Brad Gooch: That’s a deep question, and there are certain things we’ll never know. When the subject comes up she’s not prudish or provincial. Betty Hester sort of came out to her, revealed she was a lesbian, was dishonorably discharged from the military. You read those letters, Flannery’s kind of nonplussed by the whole thing (laughs).

It’s not that she’s unsophisticated. Some of it might be repressed Catholicism, and certainly part of it is that she had this disease from an early age and kind of adjusted to it. But it is an issue for her obviously.

There’s this other thing that some of the most important issues to her, like the death of her father, she almost never talked about. You get a sense the more intimate and powerful the subject the less she reveals about it.

You write about how she didn’t want to be lumped in with William Faulkner. Why was she so attuned to that?

Brad Gooch: She wasn’t very kind to a lot of her fellow Southern writers (laughs). She was very dismissive of Carson McCullers, of Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. But Faulkner she obviously has this great respect for, and had read everything of his.

At the same time she was a woman, and she was writing in a different style, and in some ways seemed almost more modernist than Faulkner, because of her pared down style as compared to his more ornate, highly language-centered style. A lot of her influences, like Hawthorne and these Catholic European novelists, it’s a very different kind of influence that isn’t really Faulknerian.

Of course you can’t always believe her (laughs). She claimed she hadn’t read Faulkner until she got to Iowa City, which isn’t true. She covered her tracks a lot. She could be cagey. cs

Flannery O’Connor Biography Book Launch

Author Brad Gooch will speak about and sign this major new work

When: Thu., February 26 at 7 p.m.

Where: Trinity United Methodist Church, followed by a reception at the Telfair Academy

Cost: Free