Jessica Hooten Wilson is the author of three books: Giving the Devil His Due: Flannery O’Connor and The Brothers Karamazov (which received a 2018 Christianity Today Book of the Year award), Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence; and Reading Walker Percy’s Novels. Currently, she is preparing Flannery O’Connor’s unfinished novel, Why Do the Heathen Rage?, for publication. Here she discusses her particular love for these authors, and why literature is a powerful vehicle for instruction and evangelization, with Word on Fire Institute Assistant Director, Matt Nelson.
We’re going to talk a lot about books in this interview. To start, can you tell us about your experience of literature as a child and young adult? When did you first discover within yourself a passion for the Great Books?
I “wrote” my first story when I was three: my mother still has it in a Rubbermaid bin in their home. I dictated the work, and she faithfully recorded it. So, I cannot remember a time when I have not been in love with stories. I was an insatiable reader, and I still carry at least one or two books with me at all times (despite the hundreds available on my Kindle on my iPhone). I prefer hard copies, so Kindle is only in emergencies. I watch my seven-year-old daughter and see the same delight. She brings books with her in the car, a novel in her backpack to school or even to church.
When I was a teenager, I found Shakespeare particularly appealing—Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet. It was the passion, of course, that got to me—at the time, the poetry was a beautiful alternative to meaningless chatter or the silliness that seemed to surround me. I remember going to see Shakespeare in Love in the theaters with my father, and he just stared at me as I recited line after line. Moments like those remind me of the giftedness that this love for literature has been. The Lord gave it to me, so it must be for his joy, not merely mine.
You have written books about Fyodor Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. I’m interested in what it is about these figures that has compelled you to write about them. Let’s start with Dostoevsky. What makes his life and works so important for us today?
All three writers attempted to dig down underneath the surface of reality to find God—that’s what usually draws me to a writer’s work. Where is the Lord at work? Where is the unseen story that I’m too often missing by being distracted in my daily reality? Dostoevsky was the model for O’Connor and Percy. Surrounded by nihilists, socialist atheists, and imitators of French novels, Dostoevsky instead attended to the mystical faith of the Russian Orthodox Church. He wrote stories that are iconic—opening a window upon the eternal so we might see how God is with us. Because the stories are ultimately about belief in God, they all become vitally important. They are filled with spiritual urgency and power, not to mention the drama that must come from portraying these mysteries.
You are currently preparing Flannery O’Connor’s unfinished novel Why Do the Heathen Rage? for publication. That’s a huge task—and a huge honor. What is it about Flannery O’Connor and her writings that has had such a powerful impact on you?
As a teenager writing stories, I wavered between satisfying my parents’ desire that I write clean, nice stories for Christian readers and my interest in grit, suffering, violence. A professor at a summer academy handed me “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” and I began to imitate O’Connor’s way of writing. From then, I read all her work, her stories, essays, letters. She taught me so much. I cannot even distinguish my own ideas from hers; anything wise I ever say will be drawn from the fountain of great writers who came before me, but Flannery most of all.
Walker Percy is best-known for his novels, but he was also a notable essayist and philosopher. What made Percy so versatile as a Christian writer, and what is it about his fiction specifically that makes him a salient voice for our modern age?
What’s funny is that Percy is so not versatile, but that’s what I love about his work: to read his essays is like reading a distilled version of his fiction. He was a philosopher who knew—as Dante, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and other great philosophers knew—that story communicates philosophy best. His fiction is wildly funny, so you’re disarmed before his most scandalous arguments. Percy wrote novels because they were more likely to be read than philosophical treatises. He joked at the end of his life that he would’ve made films had that been the most popular medium during his life. Because Percy tried to write about the universal human condition, his fiction ages well. Because he writes satire and apocalyptic novels, his far-reaching plots now sound contemporary in a way that is frightening.
All of these figures wrote their fiction as Christians. Yet they have been widely recognized, by religious and secular readers alike, as writers to be read and thinkers to be respected. Why is it that they have had such a powerful impact on nonreligious readers, despite being clearly on the side of Christianity?
I will argue that Dostoevsky’s and Percy’s faith stance—as interpreted in their work—is often debated. Both of them tried to be more covert in their approach. What makes all of them appealing is that they were, first of all, excellent artists. They never chose message over medium. They wrote incarnationally, embodying truth in beauty, enfleshing their theology. Second, they did not build straw men to knock down with religious characters. Believing that truth has nothing to fear from going head-to-head with the hard questions, these writers wrote about the suffering of children, the demons that possess us, the worst capabilities of human beings. And yet, always their work is comedic, in the sense of the ultimate happy ending.
Name another author that you have not researched and written about in depth but would like to. Why them?
Recently, I’ve been attracted to the women writers of the early twentieth century, especially Sigrid Undset and Dorothy Sayers. Not only are they great storytellers and know how to craft a beautiful sentence, but their engagement with the feminine is inspiring. While our culture seems drawn to dichotomizing versions of femininity between Phyllis Schlafley or Gloria Steinem, these women writers offer a tertium quid, one that fits the contours of Scripture.
For each of the authors mentioned, which book would you encourage first-time readers to start with?
Jessica Hooten Wilson is Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas in the Classical Education and Humanities Graduate Program. In 2019, she received the Hiett Prize for Humanities from the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. She is co-editor of the volume Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, a collection of essays on the legacy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.