By Santiago Rodriguez, S.J.
This is my interview column where I feature some of my personal heroes. These are men and women who are addressing some of the most important challenges of our time.
Paul Elie is a senior fellow with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (2003), a group portrait of the American Catholic writers Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day, and Reinventing Bach (2012). He writes for the Times, the Atlantic, Commonweal, and his website, Everything That Rises.
I have heard that there is a crucial difference between an important writer and a great writer, but for me Paul Elie is both an important and great writer. Reading his work makes me feel more human, and more reflective on our human condition. Paul is profoundly thoughtful and incredibly inventive – by his own account of what invention is all about. I interviewed Paul a couple of weeks ago. Below is a condensed and edited transcript of the interview.
Santiago Rodriguez: I discovered your work in my exploration of Catholic literary culture. You write beautifully about our human condition and the role writing has in our lives. I am interested in the way literature has affected your imagination and your life. I want to explore how you have found God as a reader and a writer. Let us begin with Paul Elie, the writer.
Paul Elie: In both my books, I have tried to spell out and dramatize patterns of the way our experience of art actually works – to offer a pattern that pushes beyond our ideas of originality and creativity. In The Life You Save May Be Your Own I try to show how the four protagonists read their way to a certain perspective, and then try to write books that have a similar effect on the next generation of readers. This is a pattern of creativity that isn’t put on display in our society as often as it should be. We think of writers being very original, or being second-hand commentators on the work of their predecessors, when in fact these great writers took over the work of their precursors, made it their own, and inspired the next generation to do likewise. This is what I call the pattern of imitation.
SR: And how does that play out in Reinventing Bach?
PE: There is a similar pattern. There is a mix of the impulse for reform and the impulse for revival that runs through the Protestant tradition – Bach being the greatest Protestant artist of all time. My books spell out a cultural aesthetic with a religious dimension – one with a Catholic emphasis and the other with a Protestant emphasis. The artists in Reinventing Bach take the work of precursors, and of Bach himself, and try to make it their own through what’s called invention. For Bach and his successors, invention isn’t making something up out of whole cloth or an act of raw creativity. It is a reformulation of existing materials, and a throwing it forth to the next generation.
SR: I am taken by your articulation of invention as reformulation. To me, it relates to the notion of pilgrimage that you give us in The Life You Save May Be Your Own. You describe it as a journey in light of a story – a journey that tests the story with your own experience, where you behold a holy sight with your own eyes. As you journeyed with writers Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, social activist Dorothy Day, and Trappist Monk Thomas Merton, what did you discover? What did you test? What was your holy sight?
PE: These are the writers who more than anybody else made me want to be a writer, especially Merton and Flannery O’Connor. They inspired me to be a writer of a certain kind. Realizing that their group portrait did not exist I decided ‘why don’t I do it?’. There is an element of presumption in all real art that what you're making is necessary. I wrote the book in a way that renders their experience with sufficient power that it comes across without being second-hand.
For example, I wanted to convey the drama of Dorothy Day’s columns in The Catholic Worker emboldening people to resist war, to help the poor, and to fight for civil rights, on the basis of her words. I wanted readers to feel that drama in my work the way they felt it in hers. Each of these writers leaves you with an expectation that you are supposed to go and do likewise. I have done likewise in the way that I've tested their story with my own experience. First of all, by writing the book and doing it in a way that is not the way they did it. They were occasional writers; a couple of them were novelists. There was also a poet and a journalist. My own thing happens to be long-form narrative non-fiction. I feel that I moved their story into a new key in a way that suits my own talents and also suits our time. I am also testing the story with my life as a parent, as a husband, as a member of the university community at Georgetown.
SR: You've stated that great writers were first great readers. I've been wanting to ask you for a while what it takes to become a great reader. Something in your last website post spoke to that – in terms of reading with a pencil, marking up the books, engaging the text, having a dialogue with it. To you, what does it mean to be a great reader?
PE: Part of it is the ability to understand texts and how they work. Education gives you that ability – I stumbled into a first grade education. Then, there's this business about reading books with your life. There is a very strong bias against this in literary studies. New criticism was supposed to be about the text, not the author or the reader. Post-structuralists are disdainful of the idea that we would actually read literary texts for edification, to try to be better people after reading them. But this is where the witness of those four writers comes in. Spend any time with the work of Dorothy Day, with the work of Walker Percy, and you know they read to figure out how to live their lives and what our existence on earth is all about. I take from their tradition to say that not only we can read this way, but we will miss part of life if we don’t.
SR: How did your fascination with literature lead you to begin writing?
PE: I was inspired by three writers I read when I was in high school. One was Seamus Heaney – the first modern poet I read – another one was John McPhee – a great New Yorker writer – and the third was Tom Wolfe. I ended up working with McPhee and Wolfe at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It was very satisfying to roll up my sleeves and get busy on a text with these guys who were my heroes. They were very practical writers – not the purely creative kind who sat in a room waiting for inspiration. McPhee was a reporter, likewise Tom Wolfe. Seamus Heaney was a worldly poet, who took interest in the things of the world. The three of them together disabused me of the idea that writing is something that just happens between your ears and your head.
SR: There is a remarkable scope of subjects in your website posts. Yet, I see those posts as a continuation of the pattern you've traced with your books. I wonder where the inspiration comes from. How do you decide when something is worth writing about?
PE: I am drawn to write things that others are not writing about. Part of the attention I have given to literature, belief, and religious tradition has to do not just with religious passion on my part, but with the fact that there are a hundred writers in this patch of Brooklyn where I am sitting, who can write about records or movies, but not so many who can write about the religious angle. That is something that I can do that others can’t, and that won’t get done if I do not do it. I write about books and music more than anything else. It’s natural to want to work out of a text, and try to point it out to the world. That’s in a lot of those posts on the website – it’s a practical criticism where you are reading a book in the midst of your life and you kind of look at your life through the book, or look at the book through your life.
SR: I minister to youth and young adults, and I realize that a good number of them read very little, but consume lots of television and social media. Would it be fair to say that the illiterate-ness we see in some young people today is due to television and social media? Otherwise, what stops them from becoming great readers?
PE: I don’t know the youth of America that well. I have three of my own at home, but they are all avid readers of books. I think the problem begins with the fact that there are only so many hours in the day. I like the internet, but if you are going to be a real reader of literature there has to be some time when you are reading literature and not reading emails. You have to make time for texts that create an interiority or a certain inner space.
To study the four protagonists of The Life You Save May Be Your Own is to see how committed they were to literature. Dorothy Day had something like seasonal affective disorder, and she would read her way out of it by reading a different Dickens, George Eliot or Tolstoy novel. She was busy with the houses of hospitality, talking all over the country, editing the newspaper, a few hours of prayer a day, but she read those Victorian novels over and over again.
In 1955, Flannery O’Connor, wrote to her correspondent Betty Hester that in graduate school she had become a great fan of Joseph Conrad and had read most of his fiction. And she read almost all of Henry James out of a sense of high duty. She made time to read. Our Catholic tradition tells us that we don’t have to go along with the flow, that our lives require a discernment on how we want to spend our time. We need to figure what is an appropriate use of our life experience. We live in a digital age with many options. We need to recover a sense of how we elect to spend our time, and hopefully spend some of that reading books.