Jessica, thank you so much for granting this interview. Can you tell us about yourself?
I’m a Christian, a wife, a mom, a professor, and a writer.
What’s your personal writing story? How did you get started as a writer?
I wrote my first novel when I was five. It was ten pages long with illustrations. While it won no awards, it has been preserved for the ages by my mother in her attic. Other than marriage, writing has been the loudest calling in my life.
So you’re finishing a Flannery O’Connor novel. How did you land this incredible opportunity?
Providence handed me this opportunity. I have a weakness for fretting and scraping and seeking after my own ambitions, but ironically, every great gift has come to me through His means. My own ambitions have achieved very little. Bill Sessions deserves much of the credit for this work. I met Bill in 2009 at the Flannery O’Connor conference in Rome, where he encouraged me to read the manuscript in the GCSU archives. Two years later, we met again at Loyola-Chicago’s conference, where he approached me about preparing the manuscript for publication. He was working on the Prayer journal, and he was eager to see more of O’Connor’s unpublished material go beyond the archives. In 2013, he emailed me and said, “I don’t think that I’m going to get to the manuscript. You are the best person for the job.” The estate has granted me a three-year period to work on transcription and manuscript preparation, with a potential extension if I succeed at making the manuscript work.
What’s the novel about?
The manuscript is incomplete and reads like a composite novel, somewhat akin to the loose structure of William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, in which the characters overlap and run into each other in several ways. The current axis of the story revolves around the protagonist, Walter Tilman, an atheist who ironically studies theology during the day and works at a liquor store at night, and the encroaching visit of one of his epistolary correspondents, a New York social activist, Oona Gibbs. There are approximately fifteen episodes, depending on how one reads the pieces, which include a handful of other characters. Next year, Mark Bosco and Brent Little are putting out a new O’Connor essay collection which has a chapter by me on the manuscript itself.
Did O’Connor have a vision or an intention for this novel that she left behind? If not, how do you understand her vision for this novel?
Yes, she has letters to friends and editors that explain some of what she was doing. We can also see from book reviews, annotations, and manuscript notes what she was researching, what was influencing her writing, and what she may have hoped for the novel. I’m also reviewing her previous manuscripts to strengthen my understanding of her process and see whether I can implement some of it going forward for her.
How do you go about finishing a great author’s novel? Where do you start?
“Finishing” is probably the wrong verb here. My goal is to produce a cohesive narrative from the various episodes, to place them in a coherent order and fill in any necessary transitions for readability. I hope to offer alternate versions for the estate and other scholars to review, so that this will be a communal effort at trying to be as faithful to O’Connor as possible.
Could you tell us about your writing process?
So many people have inquired about my process that I have begun writing a nonfiction piece about what I’m doing and how I’m going about it.
It is thrilling to imbibe O’Connor. When I was fifteen, I attended Rhodes College talented and gifted summer program for writers where a professor asked why I wrote stories that sounded like PBS specials. I told him that I used to write tales so dark and creepy that my father feared for my faith. This professor read aloud the beginning of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and told me, “Write like this.” Here was a Christian delving into darkness. My first attempt to imitate that work received a Scholastic Arts & Writing National Silver award when I was seventeen. Flannery O’Connor not only saved my writing but also my faith.
If Flannery O’Connor were still alive and you could ask her any question, what would it be?
Flannery is my Beatrice. Every time I teach Dante, I imagine her leading me through Paradise. I’d rather ask questions of her in her blessed state than of any 91-year-old version of her earthly self. Of course, any answer she gave me would probably be ineffable.
Image via Wikipedia Commons.