At the trailhead of a long trek
by Ken Myers
“Flannery’s writing is as familiar to me as the Bible (to be fair, the Bible is much longer than her collected works). Even my children know Flannery and could point out her portrait in any lineup.
“For me, the story of the publication of Why Do the Heathen Rage? begins with O’Connor’s friend William A. ‘Billy’ Sessions. I met Billy when he was seventy-nine and I was a newly minted PhD. We were both in Rome for the 2009 International Flannery O’Connor Conference, where he was one of half a dozen illustrious keynotes and I was an invisible graduate student presenting a chapter from my dissertation on O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky. However, as a sophomore in college I had lived in Italy, and I still knew a bit of Italian as well as where to find the best restaurants in Rome, so I suddenly found myself playing tour guide to the keynote speakers. The first night of the event, I led them over cobblestone streets, across bridges, and down alleys into the dimly lit haven of Trastevere for dinner. Billy shuffled more than he walked. He wore a flat-top ivy cap that made him look like a tall Mickey Rooney (the octogenarian Rooney, not the former Andy Hardy persona). The rest of the party were O’Connor scholars about twenty to thirty years his junior and a dozen years my senior.
“Billy had known Flannery since the 1950s, though she writes rather uncharitably about his garrulousness. When we met, Billy was working on O’Connor’s biography, which he completed in 2016, months before he died, but which has not — as of 2023 — been published. I had been a dedicated O’Connor fan since I was a fifteen-year-old struggling to write my own faithful but scandalous stories. That evening, surrounded by others who loved Flannery’s writing as much as I did, I felt as if I was attending the greatest dinner party imaginable.
“We ventured to La Cisterna, a restaurant that dates back to 1630 and is famous for the well beneath the street level. (Supposedly, the well inspired the writers of the Disney film Fantasia.) We sat in a circle, family style, and shared mounds of pasta with prosciutto and pecorino, and of course wine. Billy inquired about my dissertation and suggested that I take a look at O’Connor’s unfinished novel: ‘It’s her most Dostoevskian story.’ My eyes bulged from my head as I asked, ‘An unfinished novel?’ I’m sure the same notions ran through my mind as had through Stuart Burns’s so many decades before. I could hear fragments of others’ conversations at the table. Someone was showing pictures of his new grandchild. I heard another person begin quoting Bruce Springsteen like his lyrics were poetry. But my life had just changed. An unfinished O’Connor novel that was inspired by Dostoevsky? I assured Billy I would be visiting the archives in Milledgeville within the year.”
— from Jessica Hooten Wilson, Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do the Heathen Rage? A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress (Brazos Press, 2024). Hooten Wilson discussed her book on Volume 160 of the Journal.