Speaking of Flannery: Over the Rhine, Julie Lee, and More

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I’ve known Katy Bowser for several years, and am always struck by her brightness of disposition. She’s got this classy, Golden Age kind of quality to her, and the music she makes with her husband Kenny Hutson is the same.  At a retreat with Charlie Peacock several years ago Katy told me she had written a book of poetry. I immediately had a long list of questions for her: How did she find a publisher? How long had she been writing? What kind of poetry? Does she have copies of her book with her? Will she sell me one?

When she gave me her book, I was humbled to discover that she wasn’t one of those writers who writes just for the dream of publication, or for notoriety, or for money. Her little book, you see, was handmade. The pages were lovingly bound in a strip of patterned fabric. This was a collection of poems written by someone compelled to decorate the world with beautiful things. And that’s just what Katy does.

I’m glad she agreed to write a piece for the Rabbit Room, and I hope it’s not her last.

–The Proprietor


I ran into Andrew Peterson at Vanderbilt Divinity School the other day.  We were there to hear a panel discussion on Flannery O’Connor by a group of artists who had performed a benefit the evening before for Andalusia, Flannery’s homeplace in Milledgeville, GA.

It’s always pleasant to run into Andrew, particularly as it often feels that he’s a couple of steps ahead of where I’d like to be on a few projects.  Any time a person I know personally finishes writing an entire book, let alone a series, they develop a certain mythical quality to me. I’m forty-odd pages and a rough outline into one, and am just amazed at the notion of somebody finishing that particular race.  When I went to my first marathon (at twenty five years old) I couldn’t help but yell “YOU’RE AMAZING” at the runners until I was hoarse.  If I were to do that while Andrew was writing, it might break his concentration.  I did tell him that I was enjoying the Rabbit Room, and he offered me the immediate assignment of writing about the panel discussion–it seems there’s a perceived shortage of female contributors in the bunch?

Some of my favorites were present at the panel.  I knew half of them, which made for a fun time, as they chatted and consider some favorite things.  Minton Sparks, storyteller extraordinaire.  Julie Lee, songwriter and visual artist- my husband Kenny and I were in her band for a couple of years.   Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler from Over the Rhine, with whom my husband Kenny currently plays.  Mary Gauthier rounded out the group.  She’s one of my new favorites to listen to, whether singing or talking.  The show at Mercy Lounge the night before meant that all of the artists had been palling around and having a good time, there was potential for a well-oiled existing conversation.

The difficulty in writing about the discussion is that it didn’t much develop as a discussion. Had these artists been left alone in the corner of Rumours Wine Bar for a couple of hours, the discussion would have been more natural–especially with such a thoughtful group of artists.  The medium of conversation served to stunt the flow of thought.  Of course a moderator has to have a prepared set of questions–what if the panelists aren’t talking?  The difficulty is that there were no such difficulties, and little direction was really needed–these panelists interacted so naturally.  Things felt stilted at times, and we made ninety degree turns away from roads we were happily meandering down.

The talk began with a comment about Flannery’s dark themes and use of violence.   There was some wondering on the moderator’s part about why dark things can make people laugh in Flannery’s stories. Minton Sparks (a storyteller with a dark streak) answered.  The night before she had performed stories about adultery, gossip, suicide and murder in such a way that we were all howling.  Who can listen to a story about the local gossiping “hens” as Minton struts and cackles and pecks and scratches without seeing the humor in it? Minton pointed out that if you tell a dark story over and over, it develops a mythic quality and allows people to laugh.

Karin added an observation that joy and suffering occupy the same part of the brain.  I thought, what a mercy.  If they were farther from each other…  My own experience confirms the thought–it’s so kind that sweet joy lingers near the edges of hard sorrow.

Along these lines, Mary Gauthier brought out one of my favorite thoughts of the afternoon. (She did that a few times.) Mary likes to go dark–as she said, she “goes for the spook.  Swamp air and poisonous snakes”.  She warned, though, that we don’t go to the dark places gratuitously.  We go there because the dark places make us see the light shine brighter.   Adding wonderful to wonderful, Mary quoted Woody Guthrie.  Our job, she said, is to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.  Silly Katy, thinking that her pastor made that up himself when he prayed that.

The discussion moved to the importance of a writer’s region.  I think most all of the panelists were reluctant to talk on the subject.  Clearly region plays into all of the artists’s work–the South and Appalachia in Julie’s work, the South in Minton and Mary’s, Ohio in Over the Rhine’s. I was mulling over Eudora Welty’s idea in my head, that she could write about either a place she knew intimately or a place she’d never been, nothing in between.   Yet I gathered they all understood there’s more than one answer to that question.

As an example of writing outside of one’s own region, Jewly Height (the moderator) asked Karin to quote a line from their song “Jesus in New Orleans”:  “The last time I saw Jesus I was drinking bloody marys in the south”.   Linford jumped in, pointing out that they were not trying to make a literary point with the line.  The song did in fact start with a good bloody mary in the south, and “the literary stuff came later”.   Good encouragement as writer to live, and see what comes of it.  Jewly asked Over the Rhine about their southern ties, and Linford graciously conceded a bit of south-jealousy.   Karin pointed out with a grin that Cincinnati is southern Ohio.  Gracious guest that she is, she pointed out that the south has a lovely, nurtured tradition of storytelling for working out their issues and “Northerners go to therapy for it”.

Along the lines of “writing regionally,” Julie Lee, a transplant from Maryland with roots in Pennsylvania who lives in Nashville, mentioned that she’s tried on different hats in this respect.  Julie sounded halfway apologetic about this “trying on,” as though perhaps it was inauthentic.  I was in Julie’s band for a couple of years, and know her and her songs pretty well.  I would like to vouch for her in this department.  The reason that Julie can pull this off is that she has such great empathy. She gets inside a character’s head and considers life from their point of view.  Good friends out fishing, a community in Pennsylvania losing two little boys, Maybelle Carter home raising babies while A.P. is on the road.

This empathy of Julie’s strikes me as a case for why a writer who is a Christian ought to have a leg up on writing well, all other things being equal.  (I suddenly feel as though I’ve painted a target on my back.  But I mean it.)  A writer with a basic understanding of the glory and brokenness of the human situation and heart has an awful lot to glean from when considering their subject.

Which leads me to the lack in the conversation.  The massive elephant in Vanderbilt Divinity School’s panel discussion was any direct address of O’Connor’s spirituality.  Her overt Christianity, her Catholicism.  Don’t get me wrong, the conversation was steeped in themes of mercy, mystery, darkness, justice.  Flannery seemed to have little place for abstract discussion of themes, though.  Her notions are thoroughly embodied.   My friend Tish Warren brought up a story she’d heard about Flannery going to a chic party at Mary McCarthy’s house in New York City, where in discussion, Mary said that the Eucharist was a symbol of the Holy Ghost, and a beautiful one.  Flannery famously replied “Well if it’s a symbol, to hell with it”.  Flannery’s respect for incarnation, body, ideas in flesh and blood are the stuff of a great storyteller.  Christianity in person, and distorted Christianity in the person of distorted and ugly people and their actions are the stuffs in which she trades.

How do you have a discussion of Flannery O’Connor and her writing without bringing up her Catholicism, her prophetic eye for the South’s Christ-hauntedness?  The writers nudged it in, happened to be folks whose understanding of life is infused with an understanding of where grace, mystery, justice, brokenness intersect with life. No one’s fault, necessarily, and hindsight’s 20/20.   But to have this discussion at Vanderbilt Divinity School without bringing up Christ in her writings made the whole thing feel off-kilter.

Short of directly confronting the reality of Jesus, Flannery’s work doesn’t have a lot of direction or legs.  She startled and shocked, drew her large figures and freaks so that sightless folks could see.  Like Minton, she mocked what needed mocking, called out fools and evils and gave religious people a mirror.  Like all of the great storytellers on the panel, called a spade a spade and told her stories like they needed telling. I just think she might have had a tantrum at what was missing.  Kind of a Flannery story right there: a discussion of Flannery O’Connor at Vanderbilt Divinity that skirted (or just kinda missed?) the divine.


19 Comments

  1. Mike

    Katy, I’ve enjoyed bits and pieces of your music as it came to my attention. I look forward to your contributions to the Rabbit Room. Maybe we’ll get an occasional Katy Bowser song of the day.

    Mike

  2. JW

    I’m not a writer, but would say that to “disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed is a role for every Christian. Love that line.

  3. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Katy, welcome to the Rabbit Room. I’m not jumping up and down just because someone wrote a post nearly as long as one of mine.

    Beautifully written – thank you.
    Best,
    Ron

  4. Greg Sailors

    I agree with Ron, beautifully written for sure. Hope to see more soon.

    Yes yes yes.. “called out fools and evils and gave religious people a mirror.” <-what I love about Flannery..

  5. Jenni

    “How do you have a discussion of Flannery O’Connor and her writing without bringing up her Catholicism, her prophetic eye for the South’s Christ-hauntedness?” How indeed. A lovely post, Katy. I hope to see more of you in The Rabbit Room.

  6. Tony Heringer

    Katy,

    I’ll add my welcome to the Room! Thanks for the post and I do hope you contribute future articles for our consideration.

    Yours is the third piece I’ve read on O’Conner in the last month. I live in the Atlanta area and the AJC did a couple of nice articles on her this past month. One mentioned that a new biography is coming out and it is one of the few written, or so the article claimed, due to her family not being willing to share about her life.

    I’ve read next to nothing of her work and over the years have heard plenty about her. So, I’ll ask the question I dread to ask because it lengthens an already long reading list (from this cyber-pub alone!), but here it goes, what do you or others in this post recommend as an introduction to her work?

  7. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Welcome, Katy. I have been a supporter since writing a review of Longing. And it’s a small world. One of my best friends Bill Fisher brought you to Huntington College in Indiana a couple of times.

  8. Katy Bowser

    Thanks for the kind welcomes, everyone! I feel like I’m getting my sea legs with this kind of writing, so your encouragement means so much.
    Wow, friends old and new here- what a delight. I’m stickin’ around.
    You know, Tony, as for recommendations, the beauty is that she has short stories, so you can sample. They’re also my favorite form of hers.
    If you’re looking to get a grip on how she’s thinking, Mystery and Manners is a collection of talks, writings, essays and whatnot that was compiled posthumously, I do believe. She’s wickedly funny, compelling and thoughtful. It’s just great to listen to her in her own voice.
    And with that I’ll wrap it, lest I begin to challenge Ron Block’s record…

  9. Pete

    Tony:

    I’d go with A Good Man is Hard To Find. It’ a collection of short stories, of length such that they can be read in a half hour or less. The title story may be her best work of all (but others’ mileage may vary).

  10. Sid

    Thanks to all you kind RR people, I’ll be reading O’Connor for the first time after the current book I’m reading.

  11. Tony Heringer

    Pete – Hello my friend, thanks for the recommendation. I hope J and the family are doing well.

    Katy – I checked on that book and it looks to be a good one not just for her stories but the process of writing.

    I also found this Mars Hill Audio conversation on O’Conner: http://www.marshillaudio.org/catalog/conversa.asp#con22 It’s 5 bucks for the MP3 and anyone familiar with Mars Hill Audio knows thats a steal. So, I’m going to pick that up and check on the other two recommendations at the library some time in the next month or two. As a GA resident of some 25 years now its high time I get up with this fine Southern author. 🙂

  12. Chad

    “Our job, she said, is to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.”

    This is rehashed from the line “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” which I heard was originally a prayer of St. Augustine although I’ve found no proof of this in cyberworld (if the cyberworld can really provide credible proof!) It’s a great thought anyway regardless of its origin and it epitomizes the way Christ lived.

    Thanks for the post Katy. I recently heard one of your songs on the Under the Radar program and thought . . . I should check out more of her music. The Vigilantes of Love were in their peak when your husband was playing with them. Did not know he was with Over the Rhine these days.

  13. Profile photo of Katy Hutson

    Katy Hutson

    @katyhutson

    Tony, I agree with Pete. I bet you’ll dig A Good Man Is Hard To Find. i think Revelation might be in there? My personal favorite, I think.

    I need to dig up some little recordings we found online, too, of Flannery herself reading one of her stories. She has a whiny little voice, not at all what you’d imagine.

    Also, Tony, how far are you from Milledgeville? You can visit Andalusia, her homeplace, anytime. The fellow who stewards the place is very kind and knowledgeable- he was here in town for the benefit and panel discussion. It’s beautiful, and still has peacocks roaming around.

    http://www.andalusiafarm.org/

    Chad, that’s good to know! It is a great line either way, isn’t it? i’d love to dig up the context for St. Augustine’s comment.

  14. Tony Heringer

    Katy,

    Thanks for the travel tip. We do take those sorts of jags. Milledgeville isn’t too far from Atlanta and is supposed to be nice area. We drove up to north GA many years back to check out Howard Finister place. This was long before the Web so we just rolled into this small GA town asking around. It was cool they were very nice and just let us roam around the property.

  15. Matt Conner

    That’s a great point about the spirituality of O’Connor. I do appreciate your words here and it sounds like that was a very interesting group to be a part of

  16. Janna @ Rainbow Dull

    Yay for Andrew, for responding to the cries of the readers. Yay for Katy, for turning in a nice first piece. Yay for Flannery O’ Connor!

    I too saw Kenny with VOL back in the day. And I went to the OTR concert in Knoxville last summer with Mary G, the female answer to Tom Waits. Great show! Gonna go check out your site now, Katy.

  17. mlh

    Katy, very spot-on, and in your inimitable voice. Good to hear people are reflecting on her life and work. My personal favorite FC short story: Greenleaf.

    “‘Oh, Jesus, stab me in the heart!’ Mrs. Greenleaf shrieked….and she fell back in the dirt, a huge human mound, her legs and arms spread out as if she were trying to wrap them around the earth.”

    Which, I’d say he did/does? in this pretty amazing story about a scrub bull.

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