In the summer of 2006, my Flannery O’Connor dissertation was already written, accepted, and defended when, hard-earned PhD in hand, I made my maiden pilgrimage to the mecca of all O’Connor scholars and admirers: Milledgeville, Georgia.
Since my research was essentially done, seeing the O’Connor collection at Georgia College and State University was an exercise in thoroughness. (It was there, however, that I realized just how much work still needed to be done, work that was beyond the scope of my thesis but, perhaps, my thesis could open the way for others. But I am getting ahead of myself.)
Walking around O’Connor’s hometown, the antebellum capital of Georgia, wasn’t as breathtaking as seeing her bedroom at Andalusia, her family farm. The room was actually the parlor, but because of O’Connor’s difficulty in climbing the stairs to the second story, the parlor was turned into her bedroom. Through her bedroom, one could see the world; and she wrote of that world from her writing table, just within arm’s reach of her narrow bed. So when I saw her gravesite, next to her mother, who was next to her father, I was both saddened to see how quickly that family line ended and appreciative to know what O’Connor left behind.
Leaving Milledgeville well before sunrise, I saw the fog rising along Lake Sinclair, twisting among the kudzu-laden trees standing sentinel along the lonely highway. There, I could see the Misfit shooting the Grandmother. There, I could see young Tarwater waking up from his rape. There, I could see Tom Shiftlet racing away from his wife. There, on that lonely road, I could feel the presence of God – spooky yet comforting, at the same time.
I did not know then, but that summer of 2006 was when I ceased to be an O’Connor scholar but just an O’Connor admirer. I made a donation to the Flannery O’Connor/ Andalusia Foundation, returned home to Texas, and began my post-PhD career as a community college professor, teaching mostly freshman rhetoric and composition to non-traditional students. Sometimes I taught an O’Connor short story here and there in my classes, but mostly it was my dissertation itself that I often referred to, as an example of what a research project looked like, of all things.
But then I was inspired to write a novel in 2011 – and I would not have been able to write it, if I had not already written a dissertation.
As I mentioned in an article on my blog, written 1 January 2012, a dissertation is as not a novel as a written work can possibly be. But the process of planning, researching, and writing the whole thing was an excellent apprenticeship to planning out a novel. I knew what my main thesis was in my dissertation — that is, I knew what the ending was before I even started writing. So the whole dissertation planning was “simply” explaining how to get there.
Once I saw that I could write something that was unified and was longer than thirty pages — my dissertation final draft ended up being 271 pages long, with fourteen pages of bibliography — I had actually broken through a psychological obstacle in my fiction-writer mind. For, up to that point, I actually believed I could not write fiction any longer than the short story form.
It was then when I realized that what I learned most about Flannery O’Connor was not the literary scholarship, not the theological underpinnings of her literary creation, not even the “medieval-ness” of her Christian comedy. No, what O’Connor most taught me was how to be a writer – how to get the fiction written, how to get it done. Thanks to her, my not-religious-but-it-has-angels novel, Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones, was born. For that, I am indescribably grateful.
It has been seven years since that pilgrimage to Milledgeville. Life has taken me very far from O’Connor’s world. Yet I only have to close my eyes, and I can see those simple grave markers, her spare parlor bedroom, and that country road, the fog enveloping everything in silent theophany.
“7. Pa’s Books” from Scaffolds: A Childhood Memoir of Books
As mentioned earlier, my parents have owned since the early 1970s a complete, thirty-volume set of the Encyclopedia Americana, including five supplemental volumes, a Grolier’s ten-volume The Book of Popular Science, and an alphabetical, four-volume medical encyclopedia set.
No matter where we moved, these books traveled with us, as we crisscrossed the Pacific Ocean and the continental United States, from Taiwan to Texas. No matter where we lived, my parents housed it in the massive living room wall unit. They regarded these books as home decoration when not in use and then as homework help for their kids later on.
As our parents intended, these books became a great help to me and my siblings when we completed middle school and (later) high school research assignments. They came in handy when we couldn’t get to a library in the years when Pa was stationed elsewhere, Mom pulled double-shifts as a hospital cook and then (one promotion later) a dietary supervisor, and I was too young to drive. However, in all the years that we had these books, I never saw my parents actually read them.
My family, for the most part, was not a book reading family. While Mom and Pa sang us kids to sleep, they never read us a bedtime story. While Mom and Pa sometimes bought a self-help book here or there (usually about personal finances or dealing with stress) and Pa had a few well-used cookbooks, they weren’t fiction book readers. They preferred their fiction delivered through movies and TV shows. In fact, by the time I was in my own bedroom in eighth grade, my family had a TV in every bedroom in addition to the living room. At least one TV was on as long as somebody was in the house.
In other words, my family was a TV-watching family.
So, in late November 1986, I was absolutely flabbergasted when Pa came home from his tour in Diego Garcia. Among his few possessions was a copy-paper-sized box filled to the brim with paperback novels.
“Did you read all these, Pa?” I asked as I marveled at his collection.
“Yes – at least twice. Sometimes more.”
“Really?” I couldn’t help sounding surprised. “Why?”
He laughed. “The only TV channel reception we got was a grainy Hindi channel that seemed to play some version of the Mahabharata or Ramayana every two hours, the young guys only wanted to watch movies like Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds, and when it rained, the land disappeared so we were stuck together inside. I had to do something or else I would go crazy.”
“Can I read your books, Pa?” I asked, picking up one of them. It was Robert B. Parker’s Early Autumn.
“Sure.” He nodded to the whole box. “You can have them, if you want.”
Over the next months, as I adjusted to high school, my siblings went to different schools, Mom worked long hours, and Pa was at his next duty station, Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport, Mississippi, I read all of Pa’s books.
Pa’s taste in fiction was eclectic but entirely masculine. He had Westerns from Louis L’Amour. I read them but never really got into them, perhaps because I wasn’t really into the Western genre to begin with. It was even worse when I read Pa’s Clive Cussler action-adventures novels. Those had lots of overcomplicated plotlines and subplots with lengthy, descriptions that didn’t seem to add anything to the story. Also, Cussler’s characters, even main characters, were so one-dimensional and the women characters so James Bond-esque girly that I often skimmed through the pages.
It was different when I read Pa’s Cold War spy and military thrillers. Perhaps because I was a Cold War kid with a father who disappeared for months on end on behalf of the US Navy, I found this genre engrossing. Two books rise above from my murky memory: I liked the unpredictable nature of Robert Ludlum’s The Osterman Weekend, especially since it was from the point of view of an unsuspecting civilian who becomes a reluctant hero. Much later, I bought with my own money Ludlum’s comedic thrillers The Road to Gandolfo and The Road to Omaha because of that same unsuspecting Everyman-turned-reluctant-hero character, which appealed to me.
However, I really got hooked into Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. It gave me an inside view of the US and Soviet navies, as well as demystified that scary thing called the Soviet Union. Soviet Russia was no longer this monolithic juggernaut on the other side of the planet with its nuclear weapons aimed at us. There were cracks in that juggernaut, and those cracks were real, thinking people, as fictionalized in Marko Ramius. In fact, I became a big fan of Tom Clancy all through high school. I checked out of my school library Red Storm Rising, Patriot Games, The Cardinal of the Kremlin, and Clear and Present Danger as soon as those publications arrived. I suppose that was rather unusual for a teenage girl to do. In fact, I got in trouble (again) for reading a book when the teacher had already started class: this time, it was Patriot Games in Mr. Pederson’s Computer Math.
“Sorry, Mr. Pederson.”
While I read a fair number of crime novels from Pa’s collection, only one resonated with me: Robert B. Parker’s Early Autumn. The detective series Spenser: For Hire was on TV at the time, but I didn’t connect the two at the time. What drew me to read the book, over and over again, was the story of a complicated yet self-assured middle-aged man who became a teacher and father figure to a lost boy.
I admired Spenser, who cooked meals without recipes, did carpentry, read and quoted literature, treated a lady with respect, and fought when necessary. I also admired Paul Giacomin, the lukewarm, neglected fifteen-year-old whose trust in Spenser allowed him to learn how to be a man. This included being okay with crying and following his dream of becoming a dancer.
For example, here’s Spenser’s reply to Paul’s question of why people settle for miserable lives:
“Reality is uncertain. Lot of people need certainty. They look around for the way it’s supposed to be. They get a television-commercial view of the world. Businessmen learn the way businessmen are supposed to be. Professors learn the way professors are supposed to be. Construction workers learn how construction workers are supposed to be. They spend their lives trying to be what they’re supposed to be and being scared they aren’t. Quiet desperation.” (139-40)
In Parker’s Early Autumn I learned the word “autonomous.” Then I realized that personal autonomy was what my parents were teaching me how to be, not just someday but now – when “now” meant when I was still in high school, like Paul.
Pa also had a large science fiction collection that featured fiercely independent characters who use their individual skills and talents to solve seemingly impossible problems that come their way. Among his sci-fi books, one author that I saw again and again was Robert A. Heinlein. Pa had a lot of Heinlein novels: Starship Troopers. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Stranger in a Strange Land. Time Enough for Love. The Cat Who Walks through Walls. The Notebooks of Lazarus Long.
Most of these books flew right above my head at the time. I was also mightily embarrassed with all the free-for-all sex that was described here and there. However, it fit the story and the characters, so I wouldn’t call it gratuitous. As a storyteller, Heinlein gave strong, confusing stuff, especially for a fourteen year old reader. But the freedom of an individual to make, follow through, and live with one’s choices — often in spite of what one’s society dictated was sensible and right in order to lead oneself and others – was a message that I got.
This message tied all of Pa’s masculine, crazy quilt of books together: autonomy and the leadership that flows out of that autonomy. And that’s how I learned more about my dad’s personal philosophy in a cardboard box of books than in my previous fourteen years of being his daughter.
Even though I read Pa’s books, not once did Pa and I discuss what were in those books. Maybe it was just too awkward, what with the often adult themes in his books and him being my dad. Instead, we did things together that reflected Pa’s books when Pa came home on the weekends from Gulfport.
He taught me how to check and top off fluids, check the tires’ air, and change a flat tire. He showed me how to use hand tools and do basic home repair. This led to my love of This Old House and New Yankee Workshop on PBS. When I learned how to drive, he showed me how to read a map and how to get unlost without a map. He taught me how to make tasty meals from whatever was in the kitchen, and we watched cooking shows like Yan Can Cook and Home Grown with Justin Wilson.
He showed me how to read a manual so that I could upgrade a desktop computer, put together a gas grill, assemble furniture, and record movies and TV programs with a VHS tape machine. He taught me that singing or listening to music while doing tough things made the doing feel easy. He showed me how to move furniture without killing myself – “Use your legs!”
Pa was in Gulfport from late 1986 to early 1989, nearly three years when he missed a large part of our family’s daily life. Since he saw me as the oldest child, he turned to me for assurance that everybody was safe and happy when he was gone. Before he left for Gulfport on Sunday, he always said, “I depend on you. Help your mom. Help your brother and sisters.”
“Okay, Pa,” I always replied.
When he returned on the weekends, Pa kept his early morning physical training. Sometimes I joined him. We’d go to Naval Air Station Dallas, park next to a least-used airstrip, and jog around the perimeter as the mist rose up from nearby Mountain Creek Lake and the sun burned it off. When a jet took off, we’d stop and admire it as it screamed down the runway and took flight.
We seldom talked. Our breaths and sneakered feet hitting the perimeter road were the only sounds. On those jogs I noticed that Pa wasn’t tall at all. He was 5’4”, only two inches above me, which surprised me. In my head, Pa was always a big man.
In many respects, he still is.