an excerpt from
The Woman Who Almost Bolted:
An Interview with Mary Hood
In 1985, at The Georgia Review’s Roots in Georgia: A Literary Symposium at the University of Georgia, I first encountered the fiction of Mary Hood, along with the work of several other writers I have continued reading ever since: Philip Lee Williams, Terry Kay, Marion Montgomery, Harry Crews, and Ferrol Sams. At the time I was an undergraduate studying creative writing at Georgia State University with David Bottoms and really knew nothing about anything—just a greenhorn who didn’t have much going for himself except an interest in literary matters and an aspiration to write. These Georgia authors had some undefined secret knowledge, I felt, some mysterious key that could open the doors to everything I thought was important. Above all, they allowed me to realize I could stay firmly planted and write, as opposed to having to venture out to New York City or Paris or wherever else writers were supposed to go.
The symposium was the brain child of Stanley Lindberg, then editor of the Review, and it was the first such event I’ d ever attended. My intentions were not of the highest nature: I wanted to hear a few writers and buy a couple of books, but primarily I wanted to drink beer at the famous 40 Watt Club and try to meet some girls. (I accomplished the former but not the latter.) Little did I know how this four-day event would change my life, how not long after this mostly erudite weekend my literary journey would be set in place: I began reading and studying voraciously, then traveling the back roads to interview southern writers. The ultimate result was a book, Speak So I Shall Know Thee: Interviews with Southern Writers, published by McFarland & Company in 1990; one of its significant omissions, to my regret, was Mary Hood.
There is an interconnectedness, not only in the writing world but in our whole lives, that lies just under the surface—the famous six degrees by which we are separated from all other people, an idea first popularized by playwright and journalist Frigyes Karinthy in 1929, but only made popular over the past twenty years. Here I am thinking of my experience with Stan Lindberg, who—I learned years after Roots in Georgia when I interviewed him—grew up only a few blocks from where my grandmother had lived in Warren, Pennsylvania. In fact, Stan thought he might have known my grandmother in his youth. We all know someone who knows someone who knows us, and this often seems even more true of writers, geographically isolated but with professional tentacles. We feel this interconnectedness in our fiction and poetry, as well as in conversations we have with one another. I love the idea of a literary DNA for poets and other writers, a double helix of inheritance winding through our lives: whom this writer read, studied, or studied with . . . and whom those writers read and learned from . . . and so on, until we wind up walking hand-in-hand to the steps of Walt Whitman or Anton Chekhov. How did Mary Hood, as a writer, get from point A to point B? Who influenced her, who helped her along the way, and what part of her past laid the cobblestone before her feet?
I hardly knew that my interview with Mary Hood would be twenty-eight years in the making. I first wrote to her in 1986 to request an interview, but I never heard back. I wrote three or four additional letters yet still did not receive a reply. Already intimidated by the weight of her writing and reputation (she was, after all, anointed by some critics as Flannery O’Connor’s literary heir), I felt that a non-response was worse than being declined. I’ d been refused interviews by others, including Robert Penn Warren and Eudora Welty, but in those cases for health reasons.
Friends of mine offered their unqualified opinions as though they were facts: they had heard that Mary Hood was a recluse; that like J. D. Salinger she did not give interviews; and that like O’Connor she must be suffering from, if not lupus, some other debilitating disease that kept her at arm’s length from the media and English majors. All of these things, in time, I would learn were untrue.
There are people we meet in our travels who we immediately know are kind souls, and Mary Hood is one. But because Hood had been compared to O’Connor, and because Hood’s reputation had gained such immediate prominence, deep within I had the sense I would almost be interviewing O’Connor. If I dared ask, I feared, Hood might castigate me for such audacity—because why would this next-generation genius of southern letters grant me an interview? So, over the years, even after I learned that Hood and I had mutual friends, I still shied away—like Thomas Merton, who stood in O’Connor’s driveway looking at her house, then left without knocking on the door.
Not until 10 February 2007 did I finally met Mary Hood, in the Decatur, Georgia, library at a reading that celebrated The Georgia Review’s sixtieth anniversary. I brought books for her to sign, but waited until she had signed everyone else’s books before approaching her about an interview. She said yes to my request. But, as sometimes happens, things got in the way and, regretfully, I allowed the opportunity to slip away. However, the idea never left me—but in all honesty I simply did not feel I had accomplished enough to deserve what I had requested. Why? I do not know.
Another five years went by before we met again, this time at an early 2012 reading in Athens at the Ciné Bar/Café/Cinéma. I asked about the interview again, and again Hood said yes. We set a tentative date.
Nine more months passed before our schedules would permit the next meeting. That summer I began reading her fiction again and conducting my research. Finally, in one of her e-mails to me she said, “Let’s get serious here.” And that was that. We set the date, and on 18 December we finally sat down at her Commerce, Georgia, home in a small sun-drenched room where, she said, her grand piano used to be. The day we had chosen for this interview happened to be the anniversary of the founding of the Methodist church, and while we were discussing her church background Mary and I discovered several mutual friends, among them Bishop Jonathan Holston. He had been my pastor at St. James United Methodist Church in Atlanta, and he and I had traveled together to Uganda in 2012; Mary knew him from the lay-speaking courses he taught. What was supposed to be a one-hour interview lasted more than three.
As a housewarming gift, I had brought Mary a colorful basket from Uganda woven by the women in the Rubona Weavers’ Association. Before I left for the trip back to Atlanta, she presented me with a gift for my sons who, as Boy Scouts, had recently learned to start a fire using the friction technique known as bow drilling. Her gift was a capstone she had discovered when the Flint River in south Georgia receded during drought years earlier; she believed the artifact to be from the Paleolithic period, when such fundamental tools were in use.
William Walsh (WW): In 1984 your first collection of short stories, How Far She Went, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and was published by the University of Georgia Press. If I remember correctly, there was an almost immediate critical comparison between your fiction and O’Connor’s—you were being anointed almost as the next Flannery O’Connor. That must have been a great honor, but I would imagine also a heavy burden. How did you accept that praise and comparison?
Mary Hood (MH): I found her influential, but not influential on my writing. I found her influential on my career. Her venerable name on the prize brought an automatic response and attention, for her name’s sake, to my stories. The results of that attention have definitely been influential. Her influence on my published writing is strong; she set a high bar for all of us, and her name has opened doors.
Since I had already written stories, and had got along with finding my way toward and into my own work before I read and studied hers, she can’t be blamed for the stories in How Far She Went! The people who influenced my stories were Elizabeth Bowen and V. S. Pritchett and Chekhov, and I loved a handful more of Irish writers, as well as Joseph Conrad’s short novels, plus dramatists and essayists and poets from all over the world. I was more acquainted with those writers than with those from my own state and the South. I had not specialized in what is labeled “southern.” I just hadn’t got there yet.
Not thinking of literature as southern, I sought no matter where it came from what was good, always on the prowl for something good. That is true of me in general. I hope for the best. When I got serious, when I left the master’s degree program in physical chemistry at Georgia Tech—just walked away, in 1968—I started with the great books, Harvard Classics, Shakespeare’s complete works—what a tome!—and textbooks from the 1930s, some of which looked forward, but many of which looked back. I loved Sterne, who seemed, when I got to him, very modern indeed. I usually bought books on remainder tables—textbooks especially. Catching up. Always catching up. For example, I came to Eudora Welty very late. She had almost my mother’s voice when speaking. I heard Welty reading on a tape in 1982 and I thought, “How did momma know to read that?” I thought it was my mom reading. Welty is an influence, maybe my first southern “ancestor” as Borges might call it. I “met” her through reading Elizabeth Bowen’s memoir Bowen’s Court, where Welty was a guest, “an American writer.” I looked her up. As soon as I could, I bought every book.
I had not yet read O’Connor, but she was someone my cousin Venice in Atlanta knew. My cousin worked as a volunteer at Piedmont Hospital and had rolled Flannery O’Connor’s wheelchair through admissions on her last trip there. Venice knew about her and her work, but I did not. When I started reading Flannery O’Connor, I felt that I had to throw out some things in my life because we were geographically close as far as how we thought about things. I do not mean anything so writerly as Jacques Maritain’s philosophy or the Church Militant; I mean I had to give up peacocks. It hurt. I have chickens in my past and in my books and I hope in my future, but I really felt I had to give up all ambitions for peafowl. Never despair: I have sublimated them into guinea fowl.
My cousin knew Flannery O’Connor and was kind to her, read her, and appreciated her, and there was a moment when I am sure I could have made a connection, started reading at least, and should have honored her—we all should have! Perhaps I could have met her, known her, expressed my appreciation, got over myself. I was in awe. A kind of terrified awe. Maybe I still am.
What was I doing with that awe? I came too late to action, stood in that lane and looked toward Andalusia in the twenty-first century! Something comes over us; she has an effect. Think of Thomas Merton never meeting her, just standing on the dirt road and staring at O’Connor’s house—but she was home!—then going on to Asia and to his own death. All I can say is I wanted to write, indeed I was writing, but I did not make comparisons. We are not very alike. I don’t worry about the comparisons between us. I think O’Connor frightened me; I so often—from a doctrinal viewpoint, and what else was her point?—read her badly or wrong.
One of her last stories was “Parker’s Back,” and when I read it, some years after her death, I felt great sympathy for Parker. I felt that she had finally gotten it. She had finally learned to love her characters. What a green stick I was! My siding with Parker, my sympathy for him—as I learned later, reading commentary on her work—was heresy. She wrote “Parker’s Back” while in the hospital bed, and I cannot help thinking that she built the story better than she knew and that this stone she was chipping away on surpassed all human intention.
And, yes, I identify with O’Connor’s Protestant warthogs from hell, but as everyone reminds me, I can aspire to be a redeemed warthog, so that’s a blessing. Basically, we were just on absolute opposite ends of everything except the drive to get our stories right. I did not attend a class in fiction. I worked in the woods, slowly, following leads and using my library cards to dig and clear a path, even though the roads were already there.
How do we differ artistically, philosophically? Maritain taught her how to look at things; Conrad taught me. I can’t help it, I am a sucker for rendering the physical world as itself.
Once I was asked by a Catholic church in Atlanta to speak to their Sunday assembly, but they didn’t tell me the topic beforehand, and as we walked in that morning, I said, “Okay, what would you like me to do, a reading or a talk?” They wanted me to talk about growing up Catholic in the South. [laughs] I said that I wasn’t Catholic . . . yet.
WW: The comparison between you and Flannery O’Connor derives, I believe, from your having grown up in Georgia, first on the coast like O’Connor, and then in numerous places in the state. But once, when asked how far you lived from her, you said, “Thirty years.” Was there a pressure to live up to this comparison?
MH: I love the remark her editor Bob Giroux made in a retrospective about O’Connor. He said he had never known a young writer to get that much better, get that good, that soon. I wanted to learn, as she learned, what counts, what matters, how to make it more and more powerful. So it seems she was catching up, too. At the time—early ’80s, perhaps in that year after I got my manuscript back the first time from the Flannery O’Connor Award, wondering if I had any right to write, to keep on trying, or how to aim at something, reach farther, higher, or just jump straight up for it—I didn’t let anyone know I had “failed” and I didn’t let anyone know I considered trying again. I suppose I saw the Giroux interview during that time. I was about as old as she ever lived to be. When I heard that remark from Giroux, I cried—for both of us. And now, decades older than she ever had a chance to be, I feel she is still ahead of me, still leading the way, bearing the flag.
Flannery O’Connor said being compared to Faulkner was like being stalled on the railroad tracks with the Dixie Limited coming right at your wagon. I am not stalled in her path. Which is to say, I do not fear Flannery O’Connor. I do not resent her. I do not think we in any way compete. Eudora Welty felt that kind of pressure, often being asked how it was to “be” writing so close to Oxford and Faulkner. I think she had a nice way to put it, and if I remembered what it was, I’ d use it here! If there was shade with Welty, or Faulkner or O’Connor, or any of the others, it was shade that I prospered in. I am not a desert plant. I need shelter. An ecosystem and community in which to evolve.
I believe now that all writers, all writing, form part of that ecosystem, and we all evolve. Borges wrote, only half-jesting, that each writer creates his own ancestors as well as descendants. Time gives us to each other, ready or not. Libraries and geography and history and the lives of our parents challenge us, set us somewhere. Places lure us, draw us forward or back, in life tides. I think I have no anxiety of influences . . . but if I do, think of all the other southern writers out there I must also dread! No one ever asks me if I am nervous about Sidney Lanier. Or Erskine Caldwell. Or Ludlow Porch and Lewis Grizzard. I am glad for all of them, and I don’t feel called on to run any sort of footrace with them. But I do admit that I used to wonder, when I was compared to Flannery O’Connor, if people meant I was fierce. She certainly is. I have to say I did not want to be fierce. But I can also say I am glad she was. I just wish she could have been fierce longer. Maybe she still is.
Somehow fear and malaise grip me when I see how I still haven’t got it right about southern lit. I did not leave it till last, or begrudge it. What happened is, after college, I started over, began to learn everything I had not had time for at the beginning, to learn what I needed, follow obsessions sideways and forward or back . . . even studying Old English, Ogham, and Norse. Yes, way back—I studied scratches on stone, alphabets, and scrolls, and moved forward. I had not arrived at the twentieth century by the time I was writing stories. By the time I was gathering them into possible collections, I was still learning, had got maybe as far as the 1950s. In college my two advanced classes (200 level) beyond freshman comp stuff were world lit. I kept my textbooks, and inherited my mother’s, and read things mentioned in the notes. I webbed out. Bought recent textbooks remaindered at Kmart. This is not something any autodidact wants spread around, but I can’t seem to say—don’t want to say—that I discovered Flannery O’Connor thinking she was a man and an Irish man at that. Frank O’Connor is one of my favorites! Imagine my surprise. I have that sort of irony and history of me inside me, which is not much to brag about, so I don’t! But then, when I say I arrived late at the shrine of St. Flannery of Andalusia, I need to make it clear it was not because of negligence or animus—until I read her! At first, she was exhilarating, in excess. That marvelous wit seemed worth it, until I realized it was at my expense. And my people’s. Not that I know anyone like her people, in particular. But they are people in need of love, our own and especially the Lord’s . . . the same folks I am writing about. And for that matter the same Lord. Flannery O’Connor seems to be looking blazingly over their heads, toward the Cross. A good place to look, but not so past the others. And not competing, or self-evaluating. Being one of the crowd, yes, that’s where we are. But the view changes, it certainly does, when we somehow—by grace and grace alone—discover the view from the Cross. Maybe that’s what the Misfit and the granny are about, and it is a powerful story. Seeing that—how needed love is, and how impossible when we distribute it ourselves. Like one tiny tube of antibiotic ointment on a five-year trip to the Amazon. I do not in any way say Flannery O’Connor trivialized her theme. I do not say she lacked charity, and I do not say she had no tenderness; she wanted the best for us. Absolutely. But she bathed us rough, so rough, with knuckles and sandpaper and thrashing in lye soap and scooting us off with cold water from a hose—not to make us clean, but to get our attention. I honor all that in her.
The topic of influence wearies me, though. I cannot find a way to go on and on with it, I am not here for her; it’s a distraction. It’s not even a hot button. It’s a not button.
Growing up on the coast, my first landscape was live oaks and marsh, so there is always that stark light and dark and the need for shade, the evergreen shade that comes from those oaks. I grew up hearing English spoken by Filipinos, Portuguese, Russians, and Poles—and at the warehouses, transactions in Greek, French and Spanish, softest Gullah, and crisp Midwestern cadences. Brunswick was a seaport, fishing fleet, navy town—very international. All the different cultures were there; I think they are part of my ecumenical taste. We had glimpses of everything in the world, good or bad and mainly human. Every word I heard was spoken in a different accent, which helped me to have a sharper ear. And, of course, I had an ear. I know that now. That’s one of the ways I took the world in.
From the beginning O’Connor’s world and mine may have been coastal, but my world was very different from hers. Middle Georgia has its own accents, its traditions, its follies, and its graces. We were tuned to different messages, different traditions. I was an outsider anywhere I have lived; I have never had a “home town.” Moving around, I have learned to forgive place, and thus to embrace place. Dickens—wasn’t it he?—said we always begin to forgive a place as soon as we leave it behind. Flannery O’Connor’s work was a way of gaining distance, of indicting the local. Mine is a way of making a home. She wrestled as I never have had to, and she left, way too soon. Part of her struggle—her lifework and achievement, and the prize in her honor—has helped me be free. Her excellence and achievement have given her name to the annual short-fiction prize. The irony is that I am not at all sure she would have voted for me!