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Writing in a book

Katy Carl on Contemporary Catholic Fiction: Part II

April 10, 2024


In this second segment of the interview, we hear Katy Carl, Catholic author and current editor-in-chief of Dappled Things, continue her discussion on her recent collection of short stories, Fragile Objects (2023), the importance of engaging and creating contemporary fiction, and her vocation as a Catholic writer. 

Read Part I of this interview here.

. . .

Alex Taylor: When one considers the works by Catholic authors past and present, striking are the numbers of forms in which they have written, from epic, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, to lyric poetry, novels, and short stories. You’ve published a novel, and now have published this collection of short stories. How do you think about the connection between novels and short stories? In “Pantheon,” Fragile Objects’ second story, you hint that the story’s protagonist, Rachel, here a young girl leaving a sort of Benedict-Option-religious-community-gone-bad for the glamor of New Orleans, will later become a university professor, the occupation of As Earth Without Water’s Rachel, aunt to the narrator Angele and art professor in New Orleans. Are these the same Rachel, and should we expect more about her to be written? Flannery O’Connor wrote a number of short stories as draft-chapters of her novel Wise Blood—does your writing process work similarly, from a vision of momentary stories, or from a vision of a whole which generates parts that have to be thinned from what becomes a novel like a compact city?

Katy Carl: Oh wow, a lot of questions in one: I’ll do my best to be concise. Novels and short stories reflect different approaches to narrative form, which we’ll say more about in a minute. But a writer can spend a lot of time figuring out which form best fits the matter at hand. In this particular case, yes, the Rachel of “Pantheon” is the Aunt Rachel of As Earth Without Water. What I’m about to say is hard to explain from the inside of the process, but Angele and Rachel always felt thematically related to each other. When I chose to give them a literal biological and narrative relation, this also helped Angele find a bridge between her own two rather limited worlds. More of their family history exists in unpublished drafts, which maybe at some point will bear fruit but which didn’t really fit within the existing novel’s final form. So in the given case, yes, there was a thinning: necessarily so. 

Ordinarily, I begin with a sense of given character, of someone I haven’t yet met but want to know better. To me, my characters are almost persons; I want to give them something akin to the same reverence we owe a real individual, though I don’t ultimately confuse them with real individuals. But still, Pope St. John Paul II writes that the human person is an “inexhaustible mystery” with good reason! Character in fiction is like personality in life, in that it ramifies. It produces complications. Some of these complications won’t lead anywhere; others will. For my own process, I tend to have to test out lots of possible approaches to see which wires seem to carry the most conductivity, so to speak. The greater number of conductive and connective wires—of interlinking circuits, to strain an analogy—the likelier I am to be looking at a novel-length work.

Character in fiction is like personality in life, in that it ramifies. It produces complications.

After asking about the relationship of the novel and the short story, I’m curious what you think about the nebulous thing that is the short story itself. Your collection contains a variety of types: the dialogic pair that is “Allie” and “Jack”; the three-part, almost novella-length “Sequatchie Valley”; and the two-page flash fiction “Solo.” Such a difference separates these stories that one might be tempted to affirm a kind of nominalism, that the short story is just what we call fiction that falls short of a novelistic length, whatever convention holds that to be in a given time. How would you characterize the limits of the short story?

Though I can see how easily we could arrive at that conclusion—“short story” just means “not a novel”—I think there’s more to the matter. I return to O’Connor’s definition of a story as any form of words “in which specific characters and events influence each other to form a meaningful narrative.” This obviously applies to novels as well as to shorter works. So the distinctive difference that makes a novel is not just length or even level of complexity but most of all plenitude, wholeness, a sense of the wide lens and the open vista. By contrast, a short story tends to aim more for compression, selection, arrow-like flight to the target. Of course you can work against type to get either effect out of either form. But how you do that starts to be a specialist question. Which is to say: everyone might not have the same endless patience for it that writers do!

Many Catholics today find themselves in love with fine art and literature, but often it tends to be the beauties of old, whether Milton’s Paradise Lost or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, that find such favor. What do you think is the benefit to the Catholic reader of reading contemporary Catholic fiction when, in a time where attention seems a scarce resource, they might read classics such as the works of Jane Austen or Fyodor Dostoevsky instead?

For me this excellent question splits into two questions: Why should Catholics engage with contemporary creative work in addition to (not instead of) the treasures of the past? And why should Catholics strive to create such new work? 

On the former point, I sometimes hear Catholic folks expressing an opinion like the following: “Oh, I don’t read anything written after 1800,” or “1850,” or “1900”—or pick your own stopping point. You also get this kind of thing: “Nobody since Dickens has written anything good.” Or, “nobody since Tolkien,” or “Dostoyevsky,” or “Eliot,” or pick your figure. An especially fastidious young man once told me he read no literature later than Shakespeare! 

Closing our eyes to what is happening in our own era doesn’t move us any nearer to knowing how God might be calling us to respond to it.

At its most harmless, this all simply reflects a difference of taste. Some people don’t happen to care for large swaths of the novelistic tradition, for that whole mode of storytelling or its characteristic insights. Okay: de gustibus non disputandum. As far as I’m aware, no novels seem to be listed on the syllabus for admission into heaven. Even so, I would challenge skeptics of contemporary fiction to go read Girard’s classic study Deceit, Desire, and the Novel—the study that led Girard back to being a serious Catholic—and then tell me if they still think novelistic insights about the human heart boil down to a kind of knowledge we can really so safely do without. 

But sometimes, I worry, a serious Catholic’s avoidance of contemporary fiction may be due not to divergence of taste but to a fear of contagion. Someone may want to limit exposure, not so much to narrative itself, as to narrative evidence of sin. Specific socially entrenched sins seem to gain prevalence and wide acceptance during specific eras of history, and it’s not always wrong to want to flee from getting blindly caught up in that prevalence. At best, we would be fleeing due to good motives: We’re grieved by sin; we don’t want to imitate evil. But I think we can fall here into the error of thinking that fiction in particular, and art in general, is always only there to offer us exemplary models for action. It can offer such models—though as any writer will tell you, we face real technical obstacles to making these models act like living breathing characters rather than wooden statues or silly caricatures. Far more often, well-made realistic fiction offers implicit cautions around dangers we hadn’t seen or ramifications we hadn’t realized. But fiction can’t do that secondary job well unless we let it do its primary job, which is to tell the whole story at hand.

Meanwhile, grief over sin or no, we can’t ignore sin’s causes out of existence by ignoring sin’s effects. If we do, sin will continue to distort the life of our whole society, maybe also our own life in the process, and all that will have changed will be that we’ve stopped paying attention. Ignorance may feel like innocence, but it isn’t. And closing our eyes to what is happening in our own era doesn’t move us any nearer to knowing how God might be calling us to respond to it. Now if someone is already all too aware of a particular sin’s harms because of their own past wounds, and they’re seeking to heal by way of a principled disengagement, that’s a different story. I am particularly concerned here with what might be a kind of uncritical or unexamined avoidance. 

There’s a real need for discernment, which connects back to our earlier talk about suffering in art and in life: What am I called to pay attention to? What situations am I called to respond to? Where might I be unduly involving and concerning myself in what is not really within my plan of life or within God’s intentions for me? The answers will not be the same for every person. There’s no easy formula. Which is hard, because we love easy formulas! At least, I do. But I also think that some kinds of ease are to be resisted.

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Anyway, wherever possible, I think both the believing artist and the believing reader do well to be like the good steward of Scripture: bringing out of storerooms both the old and the new. While we never want to lose touch with what is good in the past, we risk stagnation if we never bring that goodness to bear on the present moment. 

And what’s at stake if we stagnate? Let’s start to answer that by distinguishing the ills of stagnation from the goods of dwelling at peace within a tradition. This dwelling is fruitful and worthwhile whenever we’re allowing past goodness to speak into, inform, and reform the present. But at its extreme limit, we sometimes hear a voice that says: Everything from the past is always better than anything today; there’s no way we could ever create work that rises anywhere near its level, and so there’s no point in trying.

For me personally, that’s the voice of sloth rooted in despair. But please understand that’s not an accusation that anyone who ever feels this way is being slothful or despairing. Rather, it’s an admission that, when the worst in me wants to yield to a temptation to indolent inertia, this is the cover story it tries to pull over on the rest of me. And it works sometimes, because there’s a grain of plausibility there, right? There’s a real need for humility before the existing monuments of culture. We have to grasp what they achieved if we have any hope of honoring what their work represents. At the same time, we can’t let their looming stature make us despair of our own more modest abilities. (See also Ecclesiastes 7:10: “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”)

I believe we have to stay grounded in grace, centered in the inner life of the Trinity, while also staying aware of what is happening around us and continuing to create whatever good things we can. Even if not to reach our contemporaries, even if not to fulfill our own natures and God-given gifts—and these would both serve as good and sufficient reasons!—then we might at least do it to reach minds in a hundred or two hundred years, who may want to know what we can tell them about what our time was and how we met it. Catholics are called to think in centuries, so let’s not let each other grow short-sighted, if we can help it.  

While a number of reviews of Fragile Objects have mentioned your novel or your work as the editor-in-chief of Dappled Things, a Catholic quarterly of ideas, art, and faith, several have also noted your book of meditations Praying the Great O Antiphons. In a 1944 article, Marshall McLuhan claimed that “a poetic work is an action produced for the sake of contemplation.” What connection do you see between this work of theological reflection and your fiction? 

I am glad you brought this up! Praying the Great O Antiphons may be a strange little book, but it’s dear to me. As Earth Without Water took me many years to finish, but I wrote Praying the Great O Antiphons rather quickly in early 2021 while waiting for the novel to be published. And though at the time I didn’t consciously intend this, the meditations dwell on many of the same thematic preoccupations that the novel does. But they do so in a radically different mode, by lovingly unpacking the language of the prayers by which we prepare to meet Christ in the last days of Advent.

While we never want to lose touch with what is good in the past, we risk stagnation if we never bring that goodness to bear on the present moment.

To the same point, Jess Sweeney of the Ars Vivendi Institute has noticed that As Earth Without Water is in many ways an Advent novel: not only because that is the season in which its foreground action is mainly set but also because many of its characters are waiting to see Christ reborn into a scenario of tremendous sorrow and pain. And he is, though not as we might expect to see him. This unexpectedness, this arrival of grace by stealth and in darkness, moves me so deeply about the mystery of the Nativity. So I hope both books contain something of that joy and urgency—that they both speak of a suddenly renewed presence and fullness of redemptive love, just where there seemed to be no hope of ever finding it again.

You’ve mentioned earlier that one importance of reading tragedies for Christians is dwelling by the foot of the Cross. One might enumerate a short tradition of poetry and novels redolent of Ash Wednesday and Lent, such as T.S. Eliot’s poem named for the day, Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, as well as Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, both of which end on that day, in which Catholic churches are packed full and we re-enter the world recalling the dust from which God has made us. If As Earth Without Water fits as an Advent novel with your reflections on the O Antiphons, are there Lenten resonances (intended or otherwise) within the stories of Fragile Objects

Though I didn’t set out to write any deliberately themed Lenten stories, my imagination is immersed in the liturgical year, so these things do emerge as I work. One of the stories makes conscious reference to the scriptural story of the woman who is freed from demonic obsession by Christ’s power. Another ends in the crowning of a particular character with thorns—though not the character anyone might have easily guessed. In yet another, two friends discover that they each have it in them both to suffer in ways that recall the sorrows of Christ and to break promises as though they were betrayers: that is to say, each of them is fully human, with all the potential for good and ill that full humanity implies. The collection’s final story speaks directly to the reality of the Resurrection and the hope we have in the general resurrection, body and soul, at the end of time. 

Well, hope in the resurrection is certainly what our culture needs, and what our attention as Catholics is turned to in these days of the Easter season! Thanks Katy, for your thoughtful answers; much here to contemplate.