Paul Elie: The Life You Save May Be Your Own

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Originally Aired on April 6, 2004.

To listen to the audio of this interview visit “The Kindlings.com”.

Well, good afternoon everybody. This is your friendly guide. And you know, in an “evangelical ‘Prayer of Jabez’, ‘Left Behind’ publishing world,” where the Christian Booksellers Association has turned to Christian fiction as the next market to exploit promoting new, exciting, hot authors, I’m reminded of the time I was actually asked to speak to the publicist in the CBA. And my assigned subject was, how to get more authors booked on my show. And my first point ¢€œ and actually pretty much my major point ¢€œ was write better books. Well, this strikes me as particularly true when it comes to books reflecting or aimed at people on spiritual journey. The issues are too important to be crafted shoddily or shallowly. And that is why our next guest’s book falls like fresh rain on parched soil. For here we are reminded of a time when passion for craft and pursuit of truth were intertwined with each other and with one’s faith tradition to produce satisfying writing and, therefore, satisfying reading.

Q. Our guest is Paul Elie. The book is The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. And it is the story of Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy who, as Paul says, were joined by craft and Catholicism. Paul, it’s great to have you with us this afternoon.
A. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Q. You know, when I-when I first got a-first read a review of the book, I was
immediately excited because I’m personally kind of disturbed at the trend in Evangelical publishing towards what I consider sub-standard writing and-and fiction. But I was interested when I-when I got the review copy because you’re a pretty young guy. And I-and I asked myself, how did such a young guy find his own life and journey intersecting with the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy?
A. Do you mean in a sense that those are writers really of two generations?\

Q. Yeah. Well, how-how did you get personally connected to these writers?
A. Well, I was born in 1965, and I was raised in a Catholic family in upstate New York. And I would say that it wasn’t until I came to college at Fordham, which is a Jesuit university here in New York, where I now live, that I had to self-consciously examine the Christian tradition and figure out my place in it. Possibly because I wanted to be a writer already, I looked to books. And in addition to all the books I was reading in-in college, I turned to the books by these four writers. Flannery O’Connor came first. At the time I thought Flannery O’Connor was a man. Like Tennessee Williams or something.

Q. Yeah, exactly.
A. One of those southern double-barreled names.

Q. Yeah.
A. I bought the complete stories and found out not only that she was a woman, and a woman who had done her work when she was very young, but that she had a connection with Thomas Merton.

Q. Yeah, yeah.
A. ¢€œ through her editor, Robert Giroux.

Q. Yeah.
A. Giroux introduces O’Connor’s complete story, a beautiful portrait of O’Connor, and then-and then a drawing of her likeness to Thomas Merton. He said that they were both characterized by deep faith, great intelligence, and highly developed sense of comedy.

Q. Yeah.
A. So having read that, I bounced over to Merton and read The Seven Storey Mountain. And then at the Fordham Library, which looked like a gothic cathedral, I set myself up underneath a churchy window and read my way through all the Merton books.

Q. Yeah.
A. And Dorothy Day’s work I encountered in an anthology. At the time I went to¢â‚¬¦ I worshiped at the Corpus Christi church up near Columbia University. It’s a church best known for being the church where Thomas Merton was baptized in 1938, I guess. Anyway, they had a book sale in the basement one day after mass, and I brought a selection of Dorothy Day’s writings. By little and by little that was in December of the year after I got out of college. And shortly after that I went down to the Catholic Worker on the lower east side and volunteered there for a couple of months ¢€œ

Q. Hm.
A. ¢€œ just on Saturdays. And then I now work as an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and they, this place has published the works of three of these writers, O’Connor, Merton, and Percy.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. So here I began to read Percy because Percy, more than the others, he’s a fan of¢â‚¬¦ He looked up to O’Connor and he looked up to Merton, even though he was a contemporary of theirs. So in a way he was an ideal interlocutor as I was making my way through the works of the other writers because he, his admiration for them was akin to mine.

Q. Uh-huh. Interesting. Well you know, the way I’d like to kind of talk about this book ¢€œ and it’s a wonderful sprawling look at their four lives individually and intertwined ¢€œ is-is from the standpoint of-of let’s posit that the reader is a young writer serious about exploring faith, wanting to write about issues of faith, wants to learn something from the example of these-of these four writers. And when we start with that just kind of broad presupposition, in general, what would such a young person take away from a study of their lives? Just in general, what do you see at-at 30,000 feet when you look at these four writers?
A. I think you see, first of all, that they were people who ¢€œ it’s not too much to say they were converted by books. Three of the four, although vestigially Christian, were not Catholics.

Q. Yeah.
A. They¢â‚¬¦ Thomas Merton had been raised among the ruins of medieval France. Dorothy Day had been either baptized or confirmed in the Episcopal church as a teenager, and Walker Percy had been raised a Presbyterian. But it was really their experience of literature that quickened the religious impulse in them.

Q Uh-huh.
A. Day, through Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Dickens, who she thought was a great dramatizer of-of Christian charity in some of his works. Merten through reading medieval philosophy. He just took seriously the injunction in certain books of philosophy that-that we are all called to a personal experience of the divine.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. And for him that meant going into a monastery.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. Walker Percy, he read existentialist work. Kierkegaard especially, but also Dostoevsky and Sartre and Camus. And the idea of a representative figure whose malaise or his despair is that of western society’s, he recognized himself in those alienated protagonists. So the first thing I would say to that writer is, look to the books and learn from them not only about how books are written, but about how-how the human situation is to be understood and how-how one’s own human situation is to be understood from the books. Don’t feel obligated to like everything. Find certain works that one has strong affinities with and-and trust that and follow it. Should I continue or do you want to¢â‚¬¦ Or do you want to interject here?

Q. Yeah. Let’s continue. You’ve covered them as readers and as kind of people who-who immerse themselves and become almost incarnated in the-in the-in the process of the book. How does that kind of process end up with a good writer?
A. Well, I think that¢â‚¬¦ I mean, any number of people have said that it’s very important for a young writer to-to-to read widely and steep oneself in the work of one’s predecessors. But beyond that I think that these four really recognized that what a great writer does is make the work of others his or her own.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. It doesn’t remain in a posture of ¢€œ I don’t want to say reverence, that’s the wrong word ¢€œ really serious books demand that we assimilate them to ourselves.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. You take them as a challenge to our whole lives.

Q. Yeah.
A. They’re not merely entertainment, they’re not merely information, there’s a kind of radical injunction at the bottom of them. Life is serious business. You have your life, how are you going to spend it?

Q. Right.
A. How are you going to orient it?

Q. I’ll tell you what. Let’s pick up there when we come back.
A. All right.

And we’ll be right back with some more of our guest this afternoon, who is Paul Elie. The book is The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. We’ll be right back.

(Break.)
Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Paul Elie. The book he has written is The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, intertwining the lives and work and journey of Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy.

Q. We’re-we’re standing back and asking, if you were a young writer today and you were going to read these four, you’re serious about your faith, what are you going to learn from their example? And Paul has-has started out by talking about who they were as readers and the way they read, and-and we’re talking about how they become writers. And-and we were, when we broke, talking about the-the radical nature of-of the-the enterprise of serious writing and serious reading that it is-it is a-it is an undertaking that has severe consequences. And you know, just to step back, Paul, you’re in the publishing business. And you know that such books are, these days, are rare and-and they tend to be read by-by serious readers of whom there seem to be fewer. These people, though, did not worry about whether they were reaching masses or not. It seems to me that one of the things they had in common was that they were writing to work out their own journey. And if others connected they certainly, in the case of Merton he, early on especially, had this deep desire to be widely read. But ultimately, their writing enterprise was more about their own pilgrimage than about-than about publishing and getting the next deal. Is that-is that accurate?
A. I think that is accurate. All of them felt it vitally important to communicate.

Q. Yes.
A. None with-none was art for art’s sake. Walker Percy saw writing, for
example, as a message in a bottle, you know, put in by one person to be urgently sent forth and read by another. That said they situated themselves to some degree at the margins. And I think their Christian faith had to do with that. They didn’t expect to be at the center of things.

Q. Yes.
A. And since they shunned the limelight ¢€œ one’s in a monastery, one’s in a non-
place as he called it, Covington, Louisiana ¢€œ

Q. Yes.
A. ¢€œ one’s in rural Georgia. And Dorothy Day, who was really in the thick of things as a-as an advocate of social justice, was at some distance from the literary world.

Q. Yeah.
A. They-they wrote for their community of admirers, let’s say, confident that it would find its way into the general culture.

Q. When we talk about their “community of admirers that would find its way into the general-the general culture,” how would you describe their sense of-of calling as a writer?
A. Well, I think that each had a very specific sense of calling. Merton¢â‚¬¦ Well, let me backtrack a bit. What strikes me, looking at their sense of calling, is how-how willing they were to follow a distinctive way and follow it at some distance, and not try to be all things to all people.

Q. Uh-huh, yes.
A. When Walker Percy decided to take up fiction and philosophy, this was
something that wasn’t done in his illustrious southern family.

Q. Yes.
A. It’s often forgotten now that he spent nearly 15 years from the end of World War II until the publication of The Moviegoer, writing essays that were read by a few dozen philosophers, at most.

Q. Yeah.
A. Working out his ideas. Yes, he had a small independent income, but beyond that he had a lot of courage to follow his calling and not be dissuaded, even if it took some years to get where he was going.

Q. Yeah, yeah. Well, you talk about the-the issue of Seekers of the Real. This is something that they all had in common.
A. That’s right. I think that both great writing and religious faith for them
represented something fundamentally real. There are aspects of each for them that represented a kind of flight away from everyday life. But when you get down to it, they say a great book as bringing a kind of news that had a kind of reality that the papers and newsreels often did not.

Q. Yeah.
A. Likewise, their religion, they thought that it told the truth about things in a way that, let’s say, contemporary philosophy often did not.

Q. When you-when you think about the point that you were making just a minute ago about the-the fact that the, in a sense each of them wrote from the margins, how was it that they found champions in the publishing world? How was it that they didn’t, well, they didn’t seem to play the game and be in the right place, they nevertheless got the attention of people in publishing?
A. Well, I think that luck had a lot to do with it. Thomas Merton was a
Cobbs classmate of Robert Giroux’s.

Q. Yeah.
A. And if he hadn’t been Giroux’s classmate, The Seven Storey Mountain might never have been published and he might never have become the most famous monk in the western world. At the same time, they knew that it was necessary for them to get their work out there and they set about finding people they trusted in the so-called general culture and working closely with them instead of demonizing mass society. They figured that they were reasonable people inside who would understand their work, and they went forth with confidence. Flannery O’Connor, for example, met Robert Giroux in New York. She was introduced by Robert Lowell, a person she trusted, to Giroux, who is his editor. Giroux gave her a copy of The Seven Storey Mountain. The way I tell it in my book, that said to her, Here’s an editor who’ll understand the religious preoccupations at the center of my novel, which was Wise Blood.

Q. Interesting.
A. And she felt understood in advance because he gave her this book about another man with religious preoccupations.

Q. Yeah. What-what’s so fascinating about this, and again, you being in the business, is that here these writers ultimately connected, not only widely to a broader culture in their own day, but they tapped into something so deeply human and-and something that-that so many people connected with, that they still have shelf life today. I mean, you can still pick up all of these authors in most bookstores. And yet-and yet think about it, at the time, they had to have a champion in a publishing house to get published. So it-it says that there is a pent-up kind of longing for people that write from an individual standpoint, that have a perspective and a point of view. But if they don’t get a champion within the kind of inner circle, they may never reach that audience that is, well, demonstrably there.
A. I think that’s true. And to some degree I’m sure that the publishing culture seems hostile to ideas like they have in their books. At the same time, they knew that the best way to get their word out was to write extraordinarily well.

Q. Yeah.
A. Flannery O’Connor was asked once whether the fact that she was a Catholic meant that she was less than an artist. In other words, she thought the truth was self-evident or was to be found in the catechism or some such, and so she didn’t really have to bother with the art. And she said, on the contrary. Because people were suspicious of her background and-and her convictions, she had to be all the more of an artist. And I think that’s true of all four of them. They really outdid themselves in their effort to make work that was of the highest quality.

A. And also they just didn’t assume the suspicions of a culture. They sought to meet the supposedly uninterested reader halfway and woo them into the work.
Q. Yeah. But when you talk about the craft, I mean, it’s interesting because all of them were-were kind of, they were not in the typical writers colony kind of places. I mean, they were in places where the craft was very much hammered out in isolation.

A. It’s true. They all had very important mentors at certain points. To some degree the kind of mentoring process that they enjoyed has been institutionalized. So they have more in common with writing program students than might initially seem to be the case.

Q. Interesting.
A. Merton got it as an undergraduate, for example. And O’Connor and Percy both sent their novel to a celebrated writing teacher named Caroline Gordon in the same week.

Q. I’ll tell you what. We’ll pick up right there when we come back.

Our guest is Paul Elie. His book is The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. We’ll be right back.
(Break.)

Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. Our guest is Paul Elie. The book he has written is The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, an examination of Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy, who were joined by their craft and Catholicism as Paul Elie says.

Q. We were just talking about the-the-the study of these writers from the vantage point of a young writer who’s serious about faith and who wants to learn from their example. And we-we’ve already heard a lot. They’ve got to write extraordinarily well, each of them were deep readers, and the books they read were books of consequence. So they-they took their craft seriously, they took ideas seriously. Each of them found a mentor or a champion somewhere along the way that-that could both promote their ideas but also love them, savor them, shape them, interact with them, a collaboration of sorts. And-and each of them, at least in the case of these four, wrote somewhere from the margin of-of-of-of the activistic scene, with the exception of Dorothy Day who was right in the middle of it. But in terms of the literary scene, they were-they were in different places than you might-you might have expected. Paul, talk a bit about the-the other thing that you find in each of these writers, is people are comfortable with them as-as people who were within a religious tradition but in a certain sense had a little bit of arm’s length with that tradition. And we talk about the degree to which they-they were part of-of their religious experience and tradition, but also kind of in a different place from that tradition.
A. That’s very true. But each of them stayed on friendly terms with skepticism, let’s say. And in different ways they dramatized the dialogue between faith and doubt that, let’s face it, is just the dialogue of the believing person in our time, that it’s appropriate for that dialogue to be ongoing and not to be silent. And in their lives and in their work they gave ample voice, let’s say, to both sides of the argument. And even if it was resolved in favor of faith, you felt that the other side had had its case made for it and their work feels earned and authentic for that reason. Dorothy Day, for example, never lost touch with her old communist friends at the time communists were all staunch atheists, but she would see them at rallies again and again and again. And so she had to frame her discourse so that it was convincing to people who were never going to be where she was religiously. And that’s really true of all four of them.

Q. When you-when you look at their own experiences and their life experiences, the experiences that shaped them, how did first-hand experience become a very important part of their life? I mean, none of them were writing from an intellectual, theoretical standpoint.
A. That’s true and it’s a good question. At the time Catholicism wasn’t thought to prize individual experience.

Q. Yes.
A. In the categories of the time, individual experience was something for
Protestants. Of course I don’t think that’s true, but that’s the way the issue was framed.

Q. Yeah.
A. So how is it that these four writers were so confident that their own experience was vital and representative?

Q. Yes.
A. In part, I think it comes from the fact that they were adults before they became active Christians, let’s say. And part has to do with their knowledge that as writers they have to have a personal vision of things. That doesn’t mean that they have to be heterodox or that they are simply seeking individual self-aggrandizement, but the writers they admired had a personal view and so would they.

Q. Yeah. But there was really only one of them that was a cradle-to-grave
Catholic. And-and-and-and one of the reviews of your book made reference to the Augustinian motif of “sinning one’s way to God.”
A. That’s right.

Q. So that you had a sense of real¢â‚¬¦ There’s a real person here that’s
experienced real life. They’ve actually¢â‚¬¦ And you have a whole chapter in your book about “The Downward Path” as part of the pilgrimage. But it gave it a certain sense of authenticity to readers.
A. That’s right. I think people expected at the time that a conversion story was just going to start at the top and go higher. What so many people connected with in a book like The Seven Storey Mountain, and still do, is a sense that here’s a person whose struggles to make sense of his life in his early manhood are real, and that when he claims religious faith it’s hard won. He’s worked through a lot of things to reach the kind of peace that he finds as a monk in the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Q. Yeah. A lot of people when they first read Merton they-they find him almost embarrassingly self pre-occupied and honest about his doubts and his ups and his downs. And he’s so, you know, his vanities are so exposed in his journals that it-that it-it-it-it’s an unusual honesty, particularly for the time, but I think it’s one of the things that gives a sustaining power.
A. I think that’s right, that his self¢â‚¬¦ When you see those seven volumes of
journals you feel the self before you with a kind of completeness ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ that you don’t get with many other 20th century religious figures. But they all had a firm grasp of the paradoxes of life seen from a religious perspective. And one of them is that, let’s say you’re drawn to aspects of the tradition that are the least likely. Merton’s sense of self was so strong that he wanted to have a counterweight to it, hence, the monastic discipline of the Trappist.

Q. Yeah.
A. Dorothy Day liked good food, liked the opera, she was attractive. She liked the Bohemian life. Hence, her embrace of the hard-scrabble life of the Catholic Worker. Flannery O’Connor was so funny that she could be nasty. So she worked the humor into her fiction as an act of charity, really, and tried to smooth out some of the rough edges in the rest of her life.

Q. Hm. When we-when we talk about the way that they came to know of each other and know each other, talk a bit about that whole-that whole process.
A. Well, they knew each other through a common editor, Robert Giroux, through a common friend, Caroline Gordon, who came up with the term, the school of the Holy Ghost. Through readers. They read one another’s books. They swapped a letter here and there. And then on a deeper level I think their work is, in a sense, if I had to boil it down to a single point, it’s the point that their recognition¢â‚¬¦ Literature and religion converts for them, in the sense that they felt called toward to have a certain reverence toward the stranger, they recognized the way in which we’re joined to people we don’t know first-hand.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. Whether that person is the reader, whether that person is the poor man on the bowery who needs a coat or a hot meal.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. Whether that person is one of the dead who Merton felt connected to through the monastic tradition. So I tried to in the book tease out the mysterious ways in which people are connected beyond the literal ways of letters and friends in common ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ and I hope that in some way it worked.

Q. You talk about rotation versus alienation. Describe what you mean by that.
A. Well, these are terms of Kierkegaard’s that Walker Percy adopted. The
alienated person is at a distance from other people that seems unbridgeable.

Q. Yeah.
A. And one of the ways to overcome the alienation, according to Kierkegaard, is to rotate into another person’s existence.

Q. Yes.
A. Thus the writer leaves his writer’s life and, let’s say, goes to work at a soup kitchen for the Catholic Worker, can see life from a different perspective and connect in a different way. So in a sense, the tradition these writers belong to constantly urges us out of ourselves ¢€œ

Q. Yes.
A. ¢€œ to rotate out of ourselves and-and thereby overcome alienation.
Q. Yeah. I’ll tell you what. We’re going to be back with some concluding
comments with Paul Elie. His book is The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. This is just a fascinating read. Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy. Great subject matter but-but handled very interestingly. We’ll be right back with some concluding comments.
(Break.)

Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. Our guest is Paul Elie. His book is The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. Truly a wonderful book, and especially for those of you that love reading or love writing and are working at being a writer who can join your craft and your religious and spiritual journey because these are writers that did it extraordinarily well. We’re trying to learn some of the lessons that are observable in their lives.

Q. We were just talking before the break about the idea of the stranger, being alienated. We talked earlier about these writers writing from the margins. And yet Thomas Merton has this vision where he experiences himself moving from separateness to being a member of the human race. And he has this just wonderful sense of-of how he fits with everybody else. Talk about that experience and its significance, Paul.
A. Well in a sense, Merton’s life and to some degree the lives of all four of the protagonists in this book, follow the proverbial pattern of losing one’s self to find one’s self.

Q. Yes.
A. Merton had a very strong sense of self as a young man and an emerging writer at Columbia University and at Cambridge University. He wanted to lose himself in order to find himself. He went to a Trappist monastery, silence, austerity, self-abnegation. He wound up writing an autobiography which became a bestseller and, against all expectations, made him famous.

Q. Yes.
A. So in a sense he was a prisoner of his self-image for some years and he chafed at the responsibilities and the burdens that being a famous monk placed upon him, a totally paradoxical situation. Ten years pass. He leaves the monastery one day to go to a doctor’s appointment, finds himself really for the first time in some years just in the middle of a rush-hour crowd in Louisville, not far from the monastery. Amidst all these strangers he rotates into another person’s everyday experience, that of a rush-hour in the middle of a big city. And he’s just blown away by the sense of the loss of self coincides with the finding of the self. And he recognizes himself in his ordinary humanness for the first time in some years. And it’s a revelatory experience for him.

Q. Hm. You-you have a whole chapter on “The Holiness of the Ordinary.”
What do we learn from that thematically?
A. Well, as is so much in this book it has both a literary and a religious
dimension.

Q. Yes.
A. And I think that they’re reconciled, that they go together. The chapter deals especially with Dorothy Day and Walker Percy at the end of their lives. Dorothy Day had done extraordinary things, leading rallies, publishing a radical newspaper, traveling all over the country to meet activists and witness against injustice. In her 70’s she was frail. She entered what she called the third half of life, citing a Buddhist proverb. And she spent time in her room in the lower east side reading, praying, greeting people and pondering the significance of her life. It was very ordinary compared to what she’s done before, but it was a time to make sense of the foregoing.

Q. Hm.
A. Same for Walker Percy. He was a man of stature, he had achieved a lot in fiction. He wanted to focus on the little things of kindness to strangers, goodwill among neighbors, living and playing a role in a small community in Louisiana where he had lived some years. And for him, that was the holiness of the ordinary, something like Theresa’s little visit, what she called the little way.

Q. Yeah. When we-when we go back now and we-we-we pick up our idea of a young writer reading these four, wanting to learn how do you take your faith seriously and write about it in, as you said, extraordinary ways, what is different about today that that writer needs to be aware of? In other words, how much was the time they were in, what created this-this unusual combination of four writers from a faith perspective, writing well, and writing into the broader culture?
A. I think that there’s more — and it’s more possible in the present than is
commonly thought ¢€œ that their experience owed more to them than to the time. But what is different, or what strikes me as different, is that I think the mass media being what they are, we’re all encouraged to-to-to think and talk like spokesmen, to have big opinions on current affairs, and so forth. And it’s very difficult to sometimes figure out what it is we are meant to do or say personally within that.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. It’s difficult to find our way to the margins the way they did. So I, my own
sense or my own discovery is that it’s important to shut down that inner spokesman and try to-try to hear the calling that’s distinctive to each of us.

Q. Well yeah, and that is so essential at the heart of the Christian faith and yet even within the Christian tradition today there’s such a move towards conformity and away from individualism, and not something that each of these had to buck as well in their own time. When-when you talked¢â‚¬¦ At the very start you talked about reading deeply. And these people believe that if you read a book, you know, it was an engagement that could actually radically change your life. You-you’ve had a rare privilege of spending that kind of time with these four. What are some of the other elements for you as a writer and as a-a person on spiritual journey that reading them deeply has affected you?
A. Well, a lot of things we’ve touched on ¢€œ and I’m glad you’ve brought them up ¢€œ a personal commitment to certain books rather than other books, a willingness to like follow the path of one’s own preferences, let’s say.

Q. Yes.
A. Merton was drawn to the monastic life. At a certain point he stopped
justifying it and just decided this is-this is going to be my calling. I think that it’s not often recognized. Let’s just say the spiritual possibilities inherent in books, that a book is a kind of halfway place where we can become very intimate with the mind and heart of another person, but ultimately are left to decide for ourselves. So if there’s a challenge in great books, it’s not quite a command. Or it’s kind of left up to us. And there’s a lot of responsibility in that. And I think¢â‚¬¦ I found from writing this book that all the different ways in which it’s possible for a reader and a writer to take up the responsibilities that other books suggest to us.

Q. Did you select the title, The Life You Save May Be Your Own?
A. I did. It comes from a story by Flannery O’Connor.

Q. Uh-huh. And what was it about it that just fit the book?
A. Well you’ll notice, you have noticed that that story falls at the exact center of the book.

Q. Yeah.
A. And in a sense, the idea of reverence towards a stranger wasn’t that stranger as a poor person or a reader or a stranger in a crowd, is one of the big ideas in the book. But more than that it seems to capture what, for me, is the experience of reading and writing, that the life you save may be your own. A book, certain books will reach us at our deepest level. And-and at their best they’ll change us. And they may even help us to save our lives.

Q. Hm. And you liked the word pilgrimage.
A. I sure do. And I think that¢â‚¬¦ It’s a term that is religious in origin, that still retains all its power in the secular world, let’s say, and it implies a narrative. What more could a writer want?

Q. Yeah. It also seems to have a little more intentionality than journey.
A. I think that’s right. And a journey is¢â‚¬¦ A journey is something much more general.

Q. Yeah.
A. A pilgrimage is a certain kind of journey.

Q. Absolutely.
A. A journey in which we go on a path that others have taken, but hoping to see what they saw but with our own eyes.

Well put. And you’re going to find lots of insight in Paul Elie’s book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It’s available at your local bookstores. We’ll be right back.

Posted in DS Interview, Staublog in August 9, 2006 by | No Comments »

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