HomeInterviewsHonoring Work Left Behind With Jessica Hooten Wilson

Honoring Work Left Behind With Jessica Hooten Wilson

Flannery O’Connor’s previously “unpublishable” novel comes to life at the helm of a lifelong fan and scholar.

Featured in our 2024 Spring Book Picks, Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do the Heathen Rage?: A Behind the Scenes Look at a Work in Progress by Jessica Hooten Wilson brings Flannery O’Connor’s previously unpublished—and unfinished—third novel to life. Deemed unpublishable, Wilson carefully pieced together 378 pages of O’Connor’s work to explore different themes and directions the author may have taken and give us a glimpse into the surprising world that the Georgia writer left behind.

Jessica Hooten Wilson is the author of Reading for the Love of God: How to Read as a Spiritual Practice, Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints, Giving the Devil his Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Search for Influence: Walker Percy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Reading Walker Percy’s Novels. She is the Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair of Great Books at Pepperdine University, as well as the co-host of the podcast The Scandal of Reading: Pursuing Holy Wisdom with Christ & Pop Culture.

Haley Roberts interviewed her about her longtime connection with O’Connor and the challenges of interpreting a fellow author’s unfinished work.

Haley Roberts: You explore your connection with Flannery O’Connor in the introduction of Why do the Heathen Rage? Can you tell us more about your history with O’Connor and her work?

Jessica Hooten Wilson: The first book I ever published was on Flannery, and one of the reviewers said something along the lines of being unable to tell where Flannery stops and Jessica starts. I think it was meant to be a critique, but at the same time I thought that was about right because I don’t think I know the difference between the things I think and that she thinks. I started reading her at such a young age, so she helped form my imagination. Writing this book was so interesting because I learned new stuff about a person that I thought I knew so much about, and I hope to give readers the same experience.

O’Connor is someone that readers, especially those that are Southern or Catholic fans, feel like they may have figured out. I want them to have the same moment I did of realizing that Flannery was working on other things and growing as a writer in her craft, while also learning new things about how she went about her practice. A lot of those things came to light as I was working on this project.

HR: Southern literature is rich in its portrayal of culture in relation to place. How do you think your interpretation of O’Connor’s Heathen impacts the overall role of her narratives within the genre?

Flannery O’Connor

JHW: In 2020, there was a lot of upheaval over Flannery because of her racist language. Everything that was going on in the contemporary setting with Black Lives Matter—which was so important for trying to understand Flannery in light of her blind spots—compelled the country to look at her more closely. I feel like what we see in this final work is her working on things that readers didn’t know she was looking so closely into, such as the examination of her own blind spots. She was wrestling with things, and I think giving readers the chance to see her process when it comes to issues like race is important so that she isn’t written off when she was working so hard on these issues in her final years.

HR: O’Connor’s work is both famously acclaimed and criticized. How did you navigate the complexities of her writing in today’s cultural context?

JHW: I thought this final work was rather prescient in that she’s dealing with a guy—Walter—who pretends to be someone else through the mail. It’s such a parallel to our world right now where people get to pretend to be someone online. I though Flannery was able to see really well in the ’50s and ’60s that kind of philosophy that we’re buying into now where people are testing the boundaries of insincerity in their affections by pretending to be someone else, as more distance is being created between people.

HR: Can you discuss any specific challenges you faced when researching and piecing together this work?

Jessica Hooten Wilson

JHW: The major challenge was that this was not a complete novel. Even an outline would have been more helpful because I would have loved to have fleshed out something of hers that gave more direction. We just didn’t have any of that, and I think that’s proved a real challenge because we didn’t even know the order the pieces went in or what was to be kept or thrown out.

From my perspective, a lot of it ended up being character sketches as she tries to figure out the characters and scenes that she would have probably never shown the public. She was just trying to get to know her characters. Another challenge is that it doesn’t sound like her in a lot of places because she was still working on the style and making things sound right. I tackled the question of whether or not I was taming her legacy by putting out her unfinished material or whether I was helping people see more fully the author that I appreciate and the genius that I think she was. Hopefully, I did the latter and was able to show people that she was still the genius we all expected. It was a process and to be able to write the way that she did was a craft that took time that she ran out of.

HR: What’s next for you in your study of O’Connor? Is there more unfinished work to discover?

JHW: Oh, I wish! There’s a lot of things that are not published, but I don’t know that they should be there in the archives. Most of it is notes and letters and more and more of those things are being published. There’s been two more collections of letters published over the last several years. Patrick Samway was also working on letters between O’Connor and Robert Giroux. There’s more secondary work that has been published like Sally Fitzgerald’s almost 700-page biography. Bill Sessions was working on a biography that was finished three months before he died, though it hasn’t been published. There’s some work on O’Connor by those who knew her well that haven’t been published that I would love to see and think are probably full of stories of who Flannery was according to these friends. As far as her own writing, I think we’ve extended what she left behind as much as we possibly could.

Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do the Heathen Rage? is out now and is one of our 12 Book Picks for Spring 2024.

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