After living on both coasts of the United States, working jobs as diverse as waitress and lawyer, surviving alcoholism, cancer, and divorce, and undergoing a life-altering conversion, Catholic writer Heather King might be said to have seen it all. Her most recent memoir, Redeemed, strives to set down these experiences and more as viewed through the fresh eyes of a new Catholic. In her writing, King expresses a truth that her heroine Flannery O’Connor described: that, though faith may seem to some a “peculiar and arrogant blindness,” it can be an “extension of vision” when the believer engages and records reality with honesty and clarity. Or, as King puts it herself, faith enables us to see in a unique way “the meat and the splendor and the wackiness and the grittiness” of the world and of our experience. It must be working: King’s previous memoir, Parched, has been widely praised; her writing has appeared in recent Best American Spiritual Writing anthologies; and she writes commentary for NPR’s All Things Considered. Recently, Ms. King agreed to share her thoughts on vision, faith, fiction, writing, and life with the readers of Dappled Things.
Your book about your conversion to the Church, Redeemed, is written through a very Catholic lens, but with both Catholics and non-Catholics in mind for an audience. How has it been received among those of your friends and co-workers who are not Catholic and those who are?
Heather King: The majority of my friends are not Catholic. Many were raised Catholic and have a really firmly entrenched hostility against the Church. For the most part they’re very courteous and careful not to openly “dis” Catholicism. As you know, some people have terrible experiences with Catholicism through given people or schools. I don’t want to purport in any way to imply their experience wasn’t as horrible as it was, so it’s a delicate subject. We try to extend every courtesy to one another. I don’t have a ton of friends who are able to exult with me in my faith and my work, but I do have eight or ten practicing Catholic friends, and a great priest friend who I talk about in the book. They’re all very supportive of and happy for me.
Just as I’d hoped, though, people in general don’t have to be Catholic to respond to this book. It’s about our humanity: questions like “what are we here for?”, “how are we to live?”, and “what is our purpose on earth?”…. I think we’re all hungry for spiritual writing that is neither preachy nor dry but just has the meat and the splendor and the wackiness and the grittiness of our everyday life. That’s where it all happens: it’s where we find how broken we are; it’s where we find Christ.
In the course of telling how you came to Catholicism, you talk about Church teachings that are different or countercultural. What insight did this process give you about how to approach countercultural truths that you know may not be well received by some of your readers?
HK: By countercultural, do you mean non-PC? [laughs] Our culture is of course in many ways gruesome and abhorrent. That comes as much from the left as from the right. I think any real follower of Christ [is] after the truth. So that’s how I approach my faith…. Think about someone like Flannery O’Connor. Is she “countercultural?” In one way, no: she buys and sells real estate, she lives on a farm and tends her birds. But always, I think, if you’re really keyed into Christ, you’re in some way countercultural. You don’t calculate to be, but that’s just the way it is, because the culture is not and has not been Christ-based…. Really, the only cool thing that [you] can ever be is totally yourself. You don’t have to feel this need to make yourself different. We’re all different enough without trying to be, without having to attach our identities to a particular political stand.
Take abortion for instance. In the ’70s, the received wisdom was that women could now be like guys, sleep around and, if [they] got pregnant, just have an abortion…. That’s just one simply pernicious cultural lie. You don’t have to attach any political label to it. To have an abortion has infinite, eternal consequences. Every woman I’ve ever talked to who’s had one will tell you that. It resonates in the heart, and our hearts and souls are the basic compass for our lives. We have to listen to them….That’s how I approach subjects like euthanasia and capital punishment–I love the Church because it stands for life in all circumstances. It totally embraces our defects and diminishment as all part of the universal plan. You don’t have to fix [life], you don’t have to sanitize it: you can accept it in all of its bloodiness and brokenness and all of our not knowing what to do with it…. The moment you purport to know what’s going to save someone else from suffering, often it’s really yourself you want to save from suffering. We don’t want the discomfort, the awkwardness, the drain of time and energy, of interacting with old people, crazy people, crying babies, people who “love” us too much, or not enough. But that’s what makes us human. That’s what we’re here for.
[In much of American culture] the impulse seems to be to figure out what you’re against and make fun of it to let people know you’re superior. You want to make yourself impervious from having to be vulnerable and awkward and not know the answers. It’s harder to figure out what we’re for. It’s hard to leave yourself open to the love and connection we all crave yet all keep at bay with our own defenses and self-promotion. We tend to think, “If I promote myself enough, that will make me happy.” It only works for five minutes, though, and then what? You’re forced inward…. In the Litany of Humility there’s a phrase: “From the desire of being preferred, deliver me, O Jesus.” The desire of being preferred is a very real bondage, and I’m prey to it big-time…. I think we have a huge fear of being forgotten, overlooked, falling through the cracks–more than ever with the Internet. If you’re in any kind of public eye or have potential to be, there’s this real impulse, I think, to grab attention…. We all should try to get our work out there, we all need and “deserve” a certain amount of attention, but I have to remind myself all the time, and this is why I’ve been going to Mass every day, to ask: Why am I living my life? Why am I writing? It has to be for the glory of God, even when I want the credit. [Remember] the parable of the woman at the well? Christ talks to the Samaritan woman about living water, and she runs to the town shouting, “You’ve got to see this guy, he’s unbelievable, he knows everything about me.” And everybody just looks up, like they’ve been sitting in front of the TV watching COPS, and says, “Huh?” You want to tell people about this amazing thing you’ve found, this “living water,” and most of the time they’re not very interested. You have to accept that they’re not very interested [while] not being pissed off, not getting discouraged, and not falling into despair. Just keep on making your little lame pathetic movements [laughs] toward the light. Just like in His day, there are always going to be a few people who are just desperate and bereft and lonely and hungry enough themselves…. They’ll find you eventually, or you’ll find each other.
Redeemed is a story of two new beginnings: your conversion to Catholicism and your entrance into the writing life. How do you view the relationship between the life of faith and the writing life?
HK: In a way, Redeemed is a story of how I came to writing, of writing as vocation or as religious calling. That is certainly how I see it. It’s no accident that I had a lifelong desire to write; I came to it relatively late in life, partly because of my drinking itself, the logistics of being constantly hungover and physically and emotionally debilitated, but partly because alcoholism, or any addiction, always squelches what’s most truly vital and passionate in us. Subconsciously, I think, we’re afraid of a “call” and avoid, it, sometimes for decades, or even worse, forever, because we sense it’s going to mean giving up everything, dying to ourselves, requiring something mysterious and glorious and dreadful. That’s how I view writing: as a call.
It’s also no accident that I came to the Church and writing at the same time. Even though I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t have the ground from which to write before I became Catholic. I didn’t have the convictions, the view of the world, my little patch of ground to stand on. I’m not saying I’ve figured everything out, but now I believe certain things, so I have a lens through which to view the world.
I literally order my life around writing: you need time to write and time to ponder, to let things ferment, percolate. Because I write about the spiritual path, I take it as a real matter of integrity to cultivate a discipline and live my life in such a way that I will have something to write about; that my path is a path toward compassion and truth and love…. You start to think about how you spend your time, what kind of movies you see, what your relationship is to food (for us food is sacrament), how you keep your apartment, what kinds of things you talk about with your friends. You start to see, “I can’t have the smallest bit of me that’s still corrupt or disordered or overattached.” Of course you still do, but you’re way more aware of it, and how that stuff stands in the way of your relationship to Christ. Spiritual principles always apply across the board: what’s good for me is good for my writing, is good for the world, is good for my relationship to God. It’s all one seamless, dynamic, organic process.
I truly believe writing saves the world. Books saved my life when I was drinking: I’m not sure I would have survived if not through what was basically my only connection to reality: literature. Now that I write, I know about how these people burned their lives out. If you’re really writing hard, you can sometimes feel a sense of: “Wow, I might die earlier than I might have otherwise if I keep this up.” It’s not that you’re not taking care of yourself–I do, I eat right and exercise–but when you give every single thing you have to it there can be a sense of being consumed by writing. You willingly allow yourself to be consumed. If only the corollary to that were that your writing is just genius. Immortal. [laughs] Of course quality matters, but as Flannery O’Connor said, we’re not judged on our gracefulness or success but on how hard we use what we’ve been given. We can all have some kind of peace in knowing that, even though maybe no one’s ever going to notice our writing, painting, music, cooking, mothering, work at the factory, this incredible job putting together a motor, or whatever it is we give to the world–but if we do it with incredible attention and gratitude and love, that’s why the world has survived as long as it has, and that’s what’s going to give it the chance to continue to survive. Writing is the most important thing in the world for me, and I consider myself blessed beyond all imagination to have found my way to this vocation that means so much.
It almost sounds monastic in a way.
HK: I don’t think you have to be an ascetic to be a writer. I don’t think you have to choose between, say, having a family and kids and being a writer. But it may be you can’t have both fully. No matter what, though, you have to have some kind of community–as a human being, never mind as a writer–and as a Catholic in particular: a community you are accountable to, that you have to show up to, where you contribute your little widow’s mite. Community is essential, because otherwise you get too crazy. [laughs] You need to be tempered, and you need people. When you think of the truly great female writers–Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor–so many of them did live a sort of monkish existence. I’m not sure whether that existence comes about when you put writing first, or whether you become a writer because you’re drawn to a monkish existence. I’ve always had sort of hermitic tendencies myself. As long as “monastic” conveys something rich and full, that resonates with all the feeling of the world, then yes, writing can be monastic in that sense. But I think everybody longs for . . . spiritual intimacy, moral intimacy. That’s been a big ache in my life, particularly these last years since I got divorced. There are struggles and gaps and massive, sometimes searing loneliness, but as [Thomas] Merton and a whole bunch of people have said: as long as we can descend into the loneliness and not try to fill it, we can see that this is the loneliness of Christ in the Garden, the loneliness of humanity. We can see it as a kind of gift and richness. I think, in a way, loneliness is the scourge of the twenty-first century. Technology has isolated us further than ever before. But maybe, if we can delve into the depths of that loneliness, we’ll find riches and a new way of connecting.
Finally: I’m dying to ask you about Flannery O’Connor. She’s your literary heroine, and mine too. What do you love so much about her? What can we learn from her?
HK: First of all, she’s just a genius, genius writer. I really think someone like this only comes along once or twice a century. She’s comparable to Dostoyevsky or Kafka in that way. You read the first sentence of her story, and you just gasp with glee because you know you’re in unbelievably great literary and moral hands. She’s funny; she has a gimlet dark eye; she has beautiful concrete details; she situates you immediately in the midst of the characters and the struggle…. Some stories that I read in the New Yorker: three paragraphs in, I don’t know what the story is about, and I couldn’t care less because the author is trying so hard to be clever or edgy or abstruse. There’s often a withholding, a stinginess of heart, in these stories that seem to be written in an insular, hip, self-consciously edgy little world, for that same world, and that tell us nothing about ourselves, if you can even get to the end of them.
Maybe they’ve lost sight of what it was they loved about literature in the first place–like the critic in Tobias Woolf’s short story “Bullet in the Brain,” who literally has to get shot in the head before he remembers why he began reading?
HK: Yes. You don’t convey [experience] by being boring and oblique, even if you’re writing about hateful, shallow, dull characters. You convey it the way Flannery did, by writing out of absolute love for the world, knowledge of your own contribution to and complicity in the brokenness of the world, sorrow at the brokenness of the world, and your sense of wonder, of mystification . . . Flannery O’Connor used vivid, vivid details, so firmly grounded in a sense of place. It’s not necessarily my place or the place of most of us, but because it is so specific, it becomes part of our place and our psyche. Then the characters: Mrs. May, Hulga in “Good Country People”–people who, like many of us, are arrogant, cynical, holier-than-thou, wanting to be holy in the wrong way, and they get blown apart by grace. Grace is always astonishing and comes in a way we wouldn’t expect and, most of the time, don’t want….
Then, of course, [Flannery's] writing was so hard-won. Her life was one of suffering and isolation. Disfigured from the cortisone with which she was being treated for lupus, she had to move back to the dairy farm with her mother. She was isolated from the slick New York “literary world”. . . She died so young, but she came to see that moving back to the farm was what she needed, a blessing for her writing. If you read her letters, they’re utterly devoid of sentimentality. There’s not a shred of self-pity. There’s one where she’s practically on her deathbed and she says to her friend, “Pray for me.” You can’t read it without bursting into tears because you know she’s really near the end, she’s never asked anyone to pray for her before. And she’s still writing, literally revising stories on her deathbed. She’s burning herself out.